LEXINGTON, Ky. — The fireworks exploded from all four corners of Kroger Field, a celebration to mark the start of the fourth quarter. As Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen lined up on the left side of the defensive line, the boundary side, the smog of pyrotechnics lingered in the air, clouding the view from the press box. The rain poured down, but Kentucky fans and players couldn’t care less about the soggy weather. The Wildcats had a touchdown lead over No. 14 Mississippi State thanks to a disruptive defensive performance led by Allen, the team’s senior star.
On first-and-10, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald scrambled up the middle. Allen closed in and brought him down for a four-yard loss. On second-and-14, Allen rushed and the Bulldogs’ left tackle grabbed his No. 41 jersey and held on for dear life, a desperate attempt to keep him from running around the back edge of the pocket and straight into Fitzgerald. Holding penalty. Before the second-and-24 snap, Allen turned to the crowd and raised his arms, feeding off the momentum of the moment. On the next play, Fitzgerald was sacked by teammate Calvin Taylor. The Bulldogs were called for a false start on third down (caused by Allen) and forced to punt.
Allen was still waiting to get a sack in the game, but he was so close he could almost taste it. “I knew it was coming, so I wasn't even tripping,” he said post-game. “I was just like, Let’s keep rushing on them. I’m feeling it.”
On the second play of Mississippi State’s next drive, Allen finally got home. Mississippi State’s left tackle hardly got a hand on him as he sped around the edge into the pocket. The Bulldogs had curiously trusted their tackles to handle Allen solo for much of the game, but they smartly double teamed him on the next play. “I feel disrespected when they don’t slide my way and they think one person can block me,” Allen said. “I feel like that’s offensive to me.”
Each time Allen was held by a Mississippi State player and it wasn’t called (about four times by his own estimation), he looked to the refs. “I told them out there, ‘They can't block me,’ you know what I mean?”
The 4-0 Wildcasts are now ranked No. 17 and demanding more attention than usual. Lexington will always be a basketball town. During the football pregame show on local sports talk radio, the conversation diverted to the kings of campus when conservative-leaning callers phoned in to complain about Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari allowing former secretary of state (and the Democratic party’s Presedential candidate in 2004) John Kerry to attend basketball practice that day.
The hoops obsession didn’t keep Allen from returning to campus for his senior season instead of entering the draft, in part to make good on his goal of establishing this football program as one that could challenge for an SEC title. Saturday’s upset of Mississippi State—Kentucky’s second win over a ranked SEC opponent already this season—brought him one step closer to that goal.
Allen’s six tackles and one sack in Saturday’s game didn’t land him on the quickie stat sheet handed out in the press box, which lists only the team’s top four tacklers, but the box score doesn’t tell the full story of his impact on the game. Allen was a disruptive force against Mississippi State, and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season. He played his best in the fourth quarter when the Wildcats had to close out the game. Because Mississippi State was playing from behind, they had to throw, so Allen lined up wide and used his speed to get to Fitzgerald. Along with the sack, Allen pressured the QB constantly and often forced Fitzgerald to get rid of the ball a lot sooner than he wanted to.
When NFL scouting departments watch a player’s film together as a group during draft meetings, they pick the three most competitive games to review. Saturday was crucial for Allen because with the rest of the SEC East down this season, scouts will likely choose the Mississippi State game as one to look at.
“He affected the quarterback from both sides,” says Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout who is no executive director of the Senior Bowl. “Some guys are more dominant and they look more comfortable off one side or the other, but he was able to get to the QB off both sides, which was really cool.”
There were a couple plays in the game when Allen’s getoff was so quick that the tackle didn’t even get a hand on him. Mississippi State entered the game with an SEC-leading average of 311.7 rushing yards; Allen and Kentucky’s defense held them to just 56 yards on the ground. The Bulldogs committed six false start penalties, and Allen played a role in triggering several of them.
Allen grew up in a basketball family (two older sisters played Division-I hoops) and had to be convinced to keep playing football when he moved from New Jersey to Alabama just before high school. Kentucky was the only major program to offer him a scholarship, and even though he is still raw, Nagy sees Allen as a first- to third-rounder, with real first-round potential because of his tantalizing combination of power, size and speed. The Kentucky senior got some draft buzz last season after he got off to a hot start with seven sacks in the first half of the year, though he failed to produce consistently throughout the rest of the season.
“You can tell he hasn’t rushed the quarterback a ton, there isn’t a whole lot to his pass rush right now other than the speed factor,” Nagy says. “But he’s long. He has long arms and he has speed, and those are building blocks. NFL teams will be able to build with that. He has quick hands and power in his hands, and he doesn’t really use the power yet, so if you are a scout or a team watching him, you’re like, Wow, this guy has a lot for us to develop. He is a really intriguing pass rush prospect.”
When the NCAA changed its rules to allow programs to hire a 10th football coach, Kentucky hired Brad White as outside linebackers coach. White had six years of experience coaching with the Indianapolis Colts and was most recently their outside linebackers coach until he was let go with Chuck Pagano’s coaching staff in January.
White started the UK job on February 1, and one of his first priorities was to catch up on Allen’s tape from the 2017 season. A few days later, he called a meeting with rising senior. Allen had decided to return for his final season just a few weeks earlier, and White wanted to give him an honest evaluation of his skillset from an NFL perspective. “I sat him down in my office and I said, O.K. Josh, if I was evaluating you this year for the draft, this is what I would have said that I would like and this is what I didn’t,” White says.
Together, they came up with a senior to-do list for Allen to focus on.
• More speed to power
• Get bigger and stronger
• Be firmer on the edge against offensive tackles
• Dominate every time you go against a tight end
• Develop an inside pass rush
Allen played wide receiver for much of his high school career, and before Kentucky hired White he hadn’t had the chance to dig in to the complexities of pass-rushing. He has a favorite outside rush move, the chop dip rip, but White wants him to develop an deeper arsenal of moves, especially an inside move. The two are currently working on adding a stab move to his repertoire.
“This is one of the first times that he has really dove into the intricacies of pass rush,” White says. “We are working to build some inside counter moves, and we are trying to build a stab, getting him those cumulative reps in practice so that he is confident enough to use it in the game. You can’t just have a fastball in the NFL. You have to have a fastball, a changeup and a curveball.”
The pass-rush education is coming along, but is still a work in progress because as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, he doesn’t have the luxury of being able to singularly focus on pass-rushing. “He has other things to do in this defense, in terms of how versatile he is,” White says. “He is not a 4-3 end right now, where you can just tell him you can work on pass-rush at practice.”
Allen says White’s NFL experience has been integral in attacking his weaknesses from last season. He has three sacks in four games this season. “He makes me feel like nobody can block me,” Allen says. “He’s taught me so much in this little bit of time he's been here. Imagine if I had him last year. Shoot, I’d be unstoppable.”
Back to that that to-do list. Allen needed to add weight in order to prove himself as a three-down linebacker and be more physical in stopping the run. In previewing the Mississippi State matchup in last week’s College Column, Nagy wrote that, based off of Allen’s 2017 tape, more than one scout described him as a “finesse” linebacker, and saw him as just a sub-downs designated pass rusher.
Over the offseason, White says that Allen made “an extreme commitment to the weight room” to bulk up. He added around 30 pounds to his 6' 5" frame and now weighs in at 263. That physicality is changing the way scouts see him. “You can see that a large majority of that weight was put in his lower half,” White says. “A lot of guys blow up in the upper body when they put on weight, but the noticeable factor is in his thighs and his quads and his back half. How much thicker he is and that’s where you need to put the weight, because that is your explosion and power, so that is why he able to play more rugged and physical, because he has that base.”
Nagy noticed that difference and an improvement from Allen in setting the edge in the run game. “The reason I know he has power in his hands is he showed that in the run game,” Nagy says. “He doesn’t bring that power as a pass rusher yet, because he does just like to use his feet and run upfield, but you did see it when he was setting the edge against the run, he was stacking tackles and tight ends and just slinging them.”
Allen is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. Nagy thinks his story could play out similar to Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport, a big-bodied, raw player who was probably a second-round prospect out of small-school Texas-San Antonio until he had a breakthrough showing as a senior and then in one-on-one drills at Senior Bowl practices. The Saints ended up trading up and taking Davenport with the 14th overall pick last spring.
“I think he is definitely one of the top, if not the top, outside linebackers right now,” says Brian Jones, college football analyst for CBS and former Texas linebacker. “He has put up two fantastic games vs. quality competition. And he will get another chance vs. South Carolina this weekend. They want to see you do that in the big games.”
White, though admittedly biased, is sure of Allen’s first-round potential, and this week, Kentucky unveiled this hype video on Allen’s return to Lexington and NFL draft ambitions.
“He is as talented as a 3-4 outside linebacker as I’ve been around at the college level over the last six or seven years,” White says. “I’m not saying that he is Von [Miller] and I am not saying that he is like Khalil [Mack], those guys are generational guys, but he has those attributes that make him an elite talent at the next level… I think he could be like Justin Houston. When you see him test, he is going to test out the yin yang at the combine, he has that kind of skills.”
A half-hour after finishing off the 28-7 win over Mississippi State, Allen sat on a stool in the team’s dining hall. He was proud of his underdog team’s fight for national relevance, and for chipping away at his own personal to-do list. “I came back for a reason and this is why,” he said.
A SCOUT’S NOTES
NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on this season…
Terry Beckner, DT, Missouri
He is one of the better guys I have seen at defensive tackle so far. He is athletic, he’s got some explosiveness to him and he can be disruptive in line off the ball. The biggest knock on him is there can be some up and down play in terms of effort. In terms of what you typically find at that DT position, he has a lot of stuff that is above the line or better in terms of the physical traits that you are looking for. He can play on the interior and he is also playing on the edge sometimes, as well on their three-man fronts that they use at Mizzou. He is probably still more of a 4-3 fit, for defensive tackle, but he has a little pass rush with his quickness, explosiveness to get up field and he can run, he is a big athletic kid who can run and those guys are hard to find. He’s not a Day 1 guy but potentially a third-rounder. Second round is a little rich, but he plays the right position. DT, LT and QBs, those are going to be the ones that get taken a little bit earlier than you would grade them just because the market sets that.
Corey Ballentine, DB, Washburn University
He’s a small school kid who won’t be a sexy high pick, but with corners he has what you are looking for with speed and athleticism. His biggest question is what is he going to run? His frame and length, those are things that are at a premium at those positions, and he has at least two out of the three traits you are looking for. His speed isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. If you aren’t a 4.2 or 4.3 speed but you have one or two compensating traits, that is always crucial, if you aren’t going to be an elite speed guy. He’s a guy who could rise a little bit as the process goes on. Once we get farther in and get later in the season, if he goes to the right all-star game, he could rise.
Shawn Poindexter, WR, Arizona
He’s very tall, athletic and has good ball skills, thanks to a high school volleyball background. He’s got special traits that teams will want, but he needs to prove himself. His draft range is too great to predict at this point.
Patrick Laird, RB and Jordan Kunaszyk, LB, California
Cal is 3-0 with a chance to remain undefeated against a good Oregon team; Laird and Kunaszyk are both late-round picks at this point but will start getting buzz if they win. Laird is a former walk-on running back who burst onto the scene last year and Kunaszyk is a competitive, productive former junior college star.
SENIOR BOWL SCOUTING NOTEBOOK
Former longtime NFL scout and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy shares the matchups he’s monitoring this week…
Week 5: Boston College RG Chris Lindstrom vs. Temple DL Michael Dogbe
This is an intriguing big-on-big matchup of contrasting styles and abilities, but the one thing both Lindstrom and Dogbe have in common is that they are both extremely strong players. Dogbe, who is considered the strongest player in the Temple program, has high-end genetics. When it comes to body type—which scouts put a lot of stock in—there are few big men in this year’s draft class that look as pretty as Dogbe. He also promises to be one of the top testing DL at the combine. School sources report that he has hit 37 reps on the bench and his 9' 7" broad jump is almost freakishly explosive for someone that is 280 pounds.
Prior to this season, Dogbe left many scouts wanting more—the physical potential outweighed the production. Through the first four games of 2018, he is finally turning his talent into tackles. In 11 games as a junior, Dogbe had 26 tackles, 2 TFL, and 0 sacks. Heading into Saturday’s game against Boston College, he has totaled 24 tackles, 5 TFL, and 3.5 sacks and all those plays behind the line-of-scrimmage are what scouts want to see from someone with such disruptive tools.
Another positive for Dogbe that should not be overlooked is that he is wearing the No. 9 jersey this year. Temple reserves all single-digits for the nine toughest players on the team and things like that are not lost on NFL decision-makers.
This week’s game will be a good test for Dogbe and his DL mates because the BC offensive line has seven players that entered the season with at least 10 career starts, led by Lindstrom’s current streak of 40 games. After a disappointing 19-17 upset loss versus Villanova earlier in the year, Dogbe commented afterwards about how Villanova’s experienced offensive line allowed them to play as a unit and create running room. He will face a similar challenge this week against the Eagles, who are one of only 18 teams in the country that returned all five starting offensive linemen this year.
We have looked at some early-season tape and there is a lot to like about Lindstrom. While he is not the twitchiest athlete and may not have the eye-popping weight room numbers like Dogbe, Lindstrom, perhaps even more importantly, is a strong player at the point-of-attack. In scouting, a couple of key descriptors are “functional strength” and “plays square”, meaning an OL does not get his body turned and they take up space. When it relates to those terms, Lindstrom has it and he does it. Very few offensive line prospects these days are explosive enough to knock people off the ball and Lindstrom is not that guy either. However, Lindstrom consistently gets his body in good position and he rarely gives ground once he covers people up.
The other thing that sticks out about Lindstrom is his football intelligence. His experience is obvious on tape. In the run game, he has a good feel for timing and angles so he fits double-teams and does a nice job working up to the second-level. In pass pro, he has good eyes and he is extremely patient so sees things quickly and he provides good help.
OTHER MATCHUPS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Ohio State WR Parris Campbell vs. Penn State CB Amani Oruwariye
Oruwariye’s size, length, and ball skills will be matched up against the explosiveness and big play ability of Campbell.
Stanford RB Bryce Love vs. Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery and LBs Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill
Heisman hopeful Bryce Love will have his work cut out for him against the fast-flowing front seven of Notre Dame’s defense led by Tillery, Coney, and Tranquill.
Syracuse WR Jamal Custis vs. Clemson CB Mark Fields
Opposites attract in this 1-on-1 matchup. Fields is quick-footed and loose-hipped but his lack of size will be challenged by the long, 6' 5" Custis.
Boise State QB Brett Rypien vs. Wyoming DE Carl Granderson
Granderson’s relentless motor and heavy hands will look to put pressure on Rypien and slow down Boise State’s aerial attack.
USC CB Iman Marshall vs. Arizona WR Shawn Poindexter
Marshall’s ability to locate the football and make plays on it will be put to the test against the 6' 5" red-zone threat, Poindexter.
WHAT I’M WATCHING THIS WEEKEND
South Carolina at No. 17 Kentucky, 7:30 p.m. ET (SECN): I know, I just wrote a lot about Kentucky, but this will be another chance for the Wildcats to make the case for legitimacy in the SEC. Along with Josh Allen, junior running back Benny Snell had a monster game last week, accounting for all four of Kentucky’s touchdowns. He’s a top running back prospect to watch.
No. 4 Ohio State at No. 9 Penn State, 7:30 p.m. ET (ABC): The biggest game of the weekend, with big College Football Playoff implications. Penn State’s defense will have to step up to have a chance against Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes.
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