UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. -- Almost two years ago, Keenan Allen stood on the east rim of California Memorial Stadium, trying to dig a trench in the concrete with his nervous feet.
Even with all the fanfare of his recruitment, he'd never had to face the day-to-day exposure to the media, at least not face-to-face. He'd never been this extensively grilled. He'd never played in front of more than the 34,126 fans in attendance at the 2010 US Army All-American Bowl. He'd never had to be held out of a game.
The soft voice was barely audible as reporters peppered the California football team's top newcomer with questions. He was the first five-star since DeSean Jackson. He would immediately become the Bears' top wide receiver. While his big brother Zach Maynard worked on getting his academics up to snuff at a local community college during his year off as a transfer, Allen had formed a close friendship with fellow receiver Marvin Jones.
Jones had grown up a lot in his own right since coming to Cal. As a freshman, he became a father for the first time. By the time Jones was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals this spring, he was the proud father of two little ones. He was the perfect teacher. They had many shared interests, including music, and they even performed a duet together before fall camp.
Allen, though, was quickly thrust in the limelight as Jones never was, and in his first game in front of 58,040 fans at California Memorial Stadium, he scored two touchdowns -- one rushing and one on a 48-yard pass from Kevin Riley -- and accounted for 158 all-purpose yards against UC Davis. In his second game against Colorado -- this time in front of 55, 440 -- Allen caught an eight-yard TD pass -- one of his five catches on the day for 57 yards. In that game, though, Allen suffered a high ankle sprain, known only to himself and the staff.
Then came his first road trip -- a quick jaunt out to Reno to play Nevada. Allen caught just one pass. On the first drive of the game, Allen saw a would-be 21-yard pass in his direction picked off by the Wolfpack's Doyle Miller, which touched off a 52-31 defeat.
"It was frustrating," Allen says. "In warm-ups, I thought I was pretty good. I felt good, I looked good, but coach [Kevin Daft] just didn't want to put me in, and it definitely hurt. It kind of let me know I wasn't in high school. We had depth. They didn't have to use me right then. That was the first time I've had to sit out for a game, any time. It was definitely a change."
Allen had lost only two games total in his final two seasons at Greensboro (NC) Northern Guilford. For his whole life, Allen at 80 percent was better than just about anyone else on the field at 100 percent.
"I feel like I have a lot of get-back to do," says Allen, who will get another crack at Nevada when the Bears open a newly renovated Memorial against the Wolfpack on Sept. 1. "The first play I got to play, I dropped the ball and they got an interception, so I definitely can't wait to get back at those DBs. I'm just ready to go."
Through these past two years, Allen has watched his mentor -- Jones -- grow as a player and as a man. And he's done some growing of his own.
If Jones could perform at a level high enough to merit a fifth-round selection in the NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals with two children to take care of, surely Allen could plow through his own struggles. A 5-7 freshman campaign provided plenty more losses for him to choke down. 2011 wasn't much better, with three straight losses to Washington, Oregon and USC and a crushing 21-10 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas.
Team struggles weren't the only trials Allen would face. Early on in Cal's Nov. 12 win over Oregon State last season, Allen caught a bubble screen from older brother and was hit square in the ribs by a Beavers defender.
"As soon as he hit me, I knew it was cracked," Allen says. "I couldn't breathe for about a good 10 seconds. I went off to the sideline, tried to stay tall, breathe slowly. It was crazy."
Instead of begging off, Allen finished the drive, and the game, catching three passes for 29 yards.
The losses, the injuries, seeing his brother struggle in his first season at the helm - throwing 12 interceptions to 17 touchdowns despite throwing for nearly 3,000 yards - they all helped to shape the now loose-jointed, relaxed and yet, still purposeful young man who took the stage at the Pac-12 Media Day at the Gibson Amphitheater in the middle of Universal Studios, Hollywood.
No longer that wilting lily, Allen took the cue from head coach Jeff Tedford -- and the microphone -- and just spoke. His feet didn't scratch at the stage -- they dangled easily off the stool upon which he sat.
Tedford was asked, with the departure of Jones, how he felt about being able to adapt to teams focusing on Allen, trying to shut down the Biletnikoff Award Watch List honoree.
Tedford smiled gently, and looked to his left: "You want to answer that, big fella?"
"We're bringing in freshmen and seeing what they can do," he said. "And the guys we had, Jackson [Bouza] and Bryce McGovern. [Cousin Maurice Harris] coming in off a red shirt year, we do have guys that can come in and play a big role."
Allen then answered question after question, without hesitation, without even looking down to collect himself. He wasn't a fresh-faced kid anymore. He was upright. He was confident. He was sure of himself.
That wasn't even the case just a few months ago. Allen had torn a ligament off the bone in his ankle while playing pick-up basketball with his North Carolina cohorts in the RSF, and had to sit out spring ball, leaving his cousin Harris as the No. 1 receiver in spring camp.
The injury -- and the resultant surgery and rehab -- have thrown both life and career into sharp relief for Allen.
"I wouldn't say it scared me, but it definitely gave me a reality check," Allen says. "I wouldn't say that I thought I was invincible, but I didn't think I'd be hurt playing basketball -- something that I did every day. When I got hurt, I kind of chilled down, focused really on football, getting in the film room."
Something so little -- something so innocent as a 6-foot-3, 200-pound athlete jumping up for a rebound -- was all of the sudden larger than life.
"Exactly," Allen says. "I didn't even realize it was going to take four months. Four months felt like a year. Longest four months of my life."
Allen only recently began to get back to running routes, and even then, he struggled -- something the former five-star prospect is not used to.
"I've been out there running routes and stuff for about three weeks," Allen says. "I'm trying to stay out there, but I die out towards the end of practice because my ankle gets a little fatigued. It doesn't have all the flexibility quite yet. I'd say it's about 85 percent. Coming into fall camp, I should be ready to go."
Once camp begins on August 4, Allen will work for the first time under new wide receiver coach Wes Chandler.
"The difference with him is that he can go out there and demonstrate it, because he's actually done it -- he's not just talking," says Allen. "He's seen it work, and he's actually done it before. I feel like I can actually listen to him more and actually use his coaching points on the field. That translates to technique, fundamentals, detailed routes, pumping your arms, just doing the little things that he knows, rather than other coaches, that he can help us with."
During those four months off Allen got to know his third wide receiver coach in two years, and though Allen was born four years after Chandler's last NFL game, the former San Diego Chargers star is now relying on the junior wide receiver as a second coach, and that's required him to grow up even quicker.
"I think I've just grown into a mature man, taking the role of being a leader on the team," Allen says. "You've got to do it, so you might as well enjoy it."
With younger cousin Harris primed to step into a starting role, not to mention the five brand-spanking-new freshman receivers, Chandler tasked Allen with being his assistant in the coaching department.
Where once Jones was charged with Allen's development, now the cleat -- so to speak -- is on the other foot.
"It was a lot of hard work in the film room. It didn't come easy," says Allen, who comes into what will in all likelihood be his final season in blue and gold with 144 catches for 1,833 yards and 11 touchdown grabs. "Marv Jones helped me out a lot. Marv, he helped me out so much with the knowledge of the game, running my routes, looking the ball in after I catch it, and at the top of your routes, you've got to keep running instead of slowing down. He taught me a lot of things - the little things that help you go a long way. Young guys, old guys, anybody can teach you something. That's how our receiver corps was. We helped everybody. Everybody learned from everybody."
Allen's sparkling career and his tireless work ethic have been as beneficial as they have been detrimental this spring and summer, as he's worked to come back from his injury, but Tedford wouldn't have it any other way.
"Keenan's a tough guy," says Tedford. "Playing through injury is always something young people need to learn. But, Keenan played last year with a broken rib. He's such a strong competitor. He's a guy who, once he broke his ankle, through spring ball, we just had to put a harness on him. When he got his cast off and his boot off, he wanted to run right away, and you had to hold him back, because he's such a strong competitor."
Now, not only is Allen set to be one of the top receivers in the country, but his playmaking ability -- honed from years of playing running back -- will be put to use on punt return.
"I'm definitely looking forward to being the punt returner this year," Allen says. "I want to take as many as I can back to the house."
Last season, Allen returned four punts for a total of 32 yards, mostly in late-season action, but for the good of the team, he is taking the punt return role and running with it.
"I think he's assumed a leadership role," says Tedford. "I think he's a guy who has opened up some, because he was kind of introverted a little bit, at least to the public. He's always been kind of a character behind closed doors, but I think he's really assumed a role of leadership, and everyone follows him - not only because he's a good player, but because of his experience, and they understand that he can help them get better every single day. His work ethic is phenomenal. He's really a great role model for the young receivers coming in. He's assumed that role with five young receivers coming in, and that's his role - to help get those guys where they need to be. I think he's doing a good job of that, and I think the young guys really look up to him."
"He definitely wants me to be the leader of the group, obviously, with game experience, just coaching these freshmen up, trying to get them ready to come in and play, because we're definitely going to need them," says Allen of Chandler. "I'm staying on Maurice hard, because he's definitely the guy, so I've got a lot of coaching to do."
Not bad for someone who didn't used to be able to even look his own fame in the eye.