Wisconsin football has been a stable for top running backs since before Braelon Allen was born, so his journey to follow in the footsteps of greatness surprises even himself.
A year ago, Allen was a highly touted 16-year-old football recruit in Fond du Lac, Wis., thinking he would be playing high school football and not yet for the Badgers this season.
After deciding this summer to skip his senior year, the 6-2, 240-pound man child went in the coming months from a defensive recruit and special teams player to a rapid rise to stardom as Wisconsin's next standout tailback.
"I honestly didn't expect to do it," Allen told Wisconsin reporters after reaching the 1,000-yard milestone following a season-best 228 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 35-28 win Saturday against Nebraska. "Being where I am right now is really cool."
Entering this Saturday's high-stakes trophy game against the Gophers (7-4), Allen is arguably the biggest name on Minnesota's defensive scouting report. Slowing him down could be a huge factor in reclaiming Paul Bunyan's Axe for the first time since 2018.
The Badgers (8-3) control their own destiny to win the Big Ten West Division title, but Allen's breakout season assured them this opportunity. Following an injury to starter Chez Mellusi earlier this month, Allen was thrust into a bigger role in Wisconsin's rushing attack.
Not many teenagers are ready for college sports, let alone such a big responsibility. Allen isn't your typical teenager. He was ready and is now second in the Big Ten with 1,062 yards rushing after seven straight 100-yard games on the ground this year, a Badgers freshman record.
"He doesn't look like he's 17 years old, that's for sure," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "He's a very good tailback, already physically developed. He looks like he's 22, 23 years old. He plays like he's been there a long time."
Allen committed to the Badgers as a junior ranked as a four-star safety recruit. Nearly a year later, he reclassified into the 2021 class and enrolled early in Madison in July.
Recruiting analysts projected Allen would be a linebacker with his size after arriving on campus. Even after being eventually listed as a tailback, Allen played only on special teams in the season-opening 16-10 loss Sept. 4 against Penn State.
Mellusi averaged a team-best 83 yards rushing in the first four games, but Wisconsin opened the season with a disappointing 1-3 record. And gifted redshirt freshman Jalen Berger was dismissed from the team in October.
Mellusi's 67 combined yards in back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Michigan were frustrating for a typically productive UW ground attack. He bounced back with 140-plus yards in wins against Illinois and Purdue, but Allen already was getting chances to showcase his talent.
A season-ending leg injury to Mellusi on Nov. 6 against Rutgers forced Allen to be the bell cow probably faster than Badgers coach Paul Chryst expected, but it ended up being a much-needed boost.
"He cares about this team and wants to contribute in any way he can," Chryst said after the Nebraska win. "And Chez gets hurt and his role is a little bit more different. There's a little more put on him."
Wisconsin's seven-game win streak started with Mellusi's 145 yards rushing in a 24-0 win against Illinois, but that was also the beginning of Allen's string of 100-yard games. And he's only getting started toward what could become a career to match some Badgers all-time greats.
Since taking over the starting role in the past two games, Allen has 401 combined yards and six touchdowns. It was only fitting the spectacular rushing effort last weekend came in front of his idol, former Badgers star and current Denver Bronco Melvin Gordon.
"[Saturday] was a big day for him, getting a chance to meet Melvin," Chryst said of Allen. "That's his hero. And I thought it was pretty good just seeing those two together."