By LARRY VAUGHT
It was a fairy-tale like recruiting story when Josh Allen signed to play football at Kentucky — but most of us never understood what might lie ahead.
Allen was a three-star defensive end from New Jersey who had Division I offers only from Buffalo and Monmouth at the time. Even nearby Rutgers had not offered Allen,. Kansas and Hawaii did have some interest in Allen, who had 22 sacks as a senior after playing his first three years in Alabama.
Kentucky assistant coach Derrick Ansley flew to New Jersey on a Friday to meet with Allen and his mother. Immediately Ansley offered a scholarship to the 6-4, 225-pound Allen and a few hours later Allen was on a plane headed to Kentucky for his official visit. Not long after starting his visit, he made his commitment to Kentucky to join a 2015 recruiting class that included current teammates C.J. Conrad, Logan Stenberg, Derrick Baity, Chris Westry and George Asafo-Adjei.
A day earlier UK had lost a commitment when Tyrone Riley flipped to N.C. State. He was a three-star defensive end. This year he’s started one game in the offensive line for N.C. State while Allen has become perhaps the best defensive player in the country.
Another original commitment in that class, defensive end Jason Strowbridge, flipped to North Carolina. He has 20 tackles and two sacks this year and in his career has six sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Good numbers — but nothing like Allen.
I still remember John Fiore, Allen’s coach at Montclair High School, pointing out he had sent defensive linemen to Ohio State, Boston College and Rutgers and that Allen was far better than any of them. He told me if Allen had another year in New Jersey for more college coaches to find him he would have been at least a four-star recruit with 30 or more big-time offers.
Former Kentucky quarterback Freddie Maggard, then a football writer for Kentucky Sports Radio before joining the UK coaching staff this year, told me Allen the was the best player in UK’s signing class? Best player with offers only from Monmouth and Buffalo?
“Just wait and see,” Maggard told me.
Guess what? He was right.
He had 11 tackles — nine solo, two sacks, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles — in last week’s comeback win at Missouri. He was named the Lott IMPACT Trophy Player of the Week for the second time this season because of that dominant performance. Allen was also named SEC Defensive Player of the Week for the fourth time in this season and the Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week. He is first UK player to earn Walter Camp National Player of the Week since 2004. If that’s not enough, he has been named a semifinalist for the 24th Chuck Bednarik Award given to college football’s most outstanding defensive player.
The 6-5, 260-pound linebacker is just the fourth player in school history to have 10 or more sacks in a season — the last was Dennis Johnson in 2001 — and UK still has at least five more games. He leads the Southeastern Conference and ranks second nationally in sacks (10) and leads the SEC and ranks third nationally in tackles for loss (14.5). He also ranks second nationally in forced fumbles (five).
He is the only player in the FBS since 2000 to have at least 56 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and four passes defended in his team’s first eight games of a season. His 24.5 career sacks and 34 tackles for loss rank second on UK’s career lists.
Stoops admitted he was not happy with Allen’s overall play in the first half at Missouri — he had an offsides penalty that kept alive a Missouri drive — and let him know about it.
“What I love about him is I got after him because he did a couple of things uncharacteristic of him and he responded like an All-American,” Stoops said. “He refocused and became the leader and dominant player he is.
“That is what the special ones do. They are coachable. I got all over him. I got up in his butt. That’s what great ones do when you are not fragile and not weak.”
Allen is a great one. Make no mistake about that. He could have gone to the NFL this season. Instead, he wisely opted to return for a senior year that has been historic for UK but also has elevated him into being a lock as a first-round draft pick.
Stoops has not been surprised. He didn’t know what Allen’s numbers would be like, but he knew he would be a dominant player for the Cats just like he has been.
“I truly knew in my heart that he was a first-round draft pick. I don’t think there is any question about that now. But I knew that coming into the year. I knew the talent that he had and the ability that he had. So, now the only question is, how high? Because he moved himself way up just by the way he is playing,” Stoops said.
“But, you know what, he is not worried about that. What he is worried about is helping his team win. You see what he does and the way he sacrifices and the way he plays, it is inspirational.”
So did Kentucky just get lucky with a late recruiting tip about Allen or did Stoops, Ansley or some other coach see all this coming?
“When you just look at him before you know him, you see the length and the athleticism and the upside that he had. We are such a developmental sport that you have to project guys a couple years down the road. He came in and actually did better than we anticipated probably in year one, year two,” Stoops said.
“But again, he is versatile. His background, playing multiple positions, changing direction, a big athlete. Length never hurts. When you have length and you have size, you just kind of take up space and get in the way. But, obviously, he has taken that to a whole another level.”