Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley recalled breaking down film last week, watching the quickness of Kentucky’s inside linebackers and the way the Wildcats’ corners took advantage of their length.
He rattled off jersey numbers and offered a basic rundown to the media. But he couldn’t name names — “I don’t really know their names,” he said — with one big exception. Linebacker Josh Allen.
Every Penn State player knew Allen, the national defensive player of the year, nearly three weeks ahead of the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. When asked to name a defensive player, or a Kentucky standout, Allen was always the first mentioned. There’s no missing him.
“He’s always creating havoc,” McSorley said. “He’s creating fumbles; he’s really making quarterbacks move off their spot. On pass-rushing downs, he’s really good and he’s extremely active.”
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Added running back Miles Sanders: “You turn on film and you see him automatically. He’s a gamebreaker in my eyes, a great player. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Allen hasn’t been an under-the-radar prospect since high school, when he was a two-star recruit just trying to get one school to take a chance. With Kentucky, he ended up playing in every game as a true freshman and then developed into a three-year starter with career records in both sacks (28.5) and tackles for loss (39).
This year, he’s been especially effective — increasing his draft stock from a potential fourth-rounder in 2018 to a near-certain top-10 pick in 2019. He gained about 30 pounds this past offseason and now stands at a towering 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds.
The Nittany Lions may not have been aware of his background, but they’re sure aware of his results on the field.
“He’s got a great explosion off the ball,” Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said. “He really does a nice job with his hands, and he has some great counter moves and things of that nature. He’ll be a tremendous player in the NFL.”
So far this season, Allen boasts an SEC-leading 18.5 tackles for loss and is tied with a nation-leading five forced fumbles, to complement his 14 sacks, which are the second-most in the FBS. He’s already won virtually every major defensive award — he’s been handed the Bednarik and Nagurski — in addition to being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. lists Allen as the No. 4 overall player on his 2019 NFL draft big board. So, although there will be plenty of stars on the field on New Year’s Day, none will be brighter than Allen when it comes to NFL potential.
That’s, in part, why Allen wasn’t initially sure whether he’d participate in the bowl and risk injury. But he recently announced he was definitely playing — a fact that Penn State head coach James Franklin wished he didn’t hear.
“I was following him on Twitter and sending him a bunch of direct messages, like, ‘Hey, you may want to save yourself for the draft,’” Franklin said with a laugh. “But obviously that didn’t work.”
Both Franklin and Rahne said the key, unsurprisingly, will first be locating Allen on the field and being aware where he is at all times. Secondly will be limiting his impact, potentially with motions or some different schemes. But there’s a big difference between simple and easy — and there’s no telling what might work against Allen, the heart-and-soul of the nation’s No. 8 scoring defense, which is statistically better than Michigan.
“It’s probably one of the top defensive units we’ve faced all year,” McSorley said.
There’s no ignoring Allen on the field. During Friday’s Citrus Bowl media day, every Penn State player made that clear.