DeMatha Catholic High School junior running back Mark Allen excels at high school football and enjoys watching professional football, but there’s a gap in football fandom.
“He doesn’t keep up with college football,” DeMatha coach Elijah Brooks said. “He doesn’t watch college football. I think that it is one of the most amazing — he’s an interesting kid.”
That, perhaps, made Allen the perfect fit as the first player to commit to Penn State University’s 2014 recruiting class following the program’s sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. If Allen never cared much about Penn State’s prestige in the college football world, how could he care if it slips? To him, Penn State's biggest appeal was Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.
Though he occasionally and randomly watched Penn State on television, appreciating the Nittany Lions’ plain colors and run-first scheme, Allen really liked watching the New England Patriots, jumping on the bandwagon when they reached the Super Bowl. So, when O’Brien, formerly the Patriots offensive coordinator, compared Allen to New England running back Danny Woodhead, Allen jumped at the first scholarship offer he received.
Allen — 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds — has the versatility to be used like the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Woodhead, who is a frequent target of passes. And Brooks believes Allen has the attitude to excel at the next level.
“He’s the player — the smallest player on the field — that is encouraging all of his teammates to perform at a high level. He does everything 100 percent,” Brooks said. “I think that’s one of the things that the Penn State coaches fell in love with.
“He’s one of the biggest competitors I’ve ever been around. I don’t know if it’s a situation where he’s always been the smallest guy and he has to fight for everything.”
Brooks’ theory holds some water.
“Size doesn’t matter in the game of football. If you have the heart and you’re willing to work, you should look straight past the size,” Allen said. “Me being a little back, people keep downsizing me. So, it just makes me want to outwork everybody who they think is better than me and come to the top, work my way to the top.”
But size hasn’t always motivated Allen. When he began playing football, he was “the big guy,” and even then, he found other factors to push himself.
“I would never let somebody outwork me,” Allen said. “I always felt like I was above somebody, because if somebody was right on me, I would work three times harder to get right back in front of them.”
Size is just the latest perceived slight Allen uses to motivate himself. After last season, his first on the varsity team after a year of playing on the freshman team, it was a lack of speed.
“He thought he could come right up and dominate or be successful,” Brooks said. “He had a rude awakening when their linemen and linebackers were just as fast as him.”
Keep in mind Allen ran for more than 600 yards as a backup last year.
But in an effort to get quicker, he practiced with the track team in the spring. Though he didn’t have time to compete in meets due to football commitments, he improved his 40-yard dash time to 4.43 seconds.
“He wants to be a special player,” Brooks said. “He wants to work harder on everything that he does. He wants to be much better than a 600-yard back. He’s well on his way.”
Unfortunately for Allen, his junior season ended with an anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered two weeks ago. He’ll finish the year 682 yards and four touchdowns.
Once he returns, Allen will undoubtedly be busy running track or doing something else to improve his game. But he says he’ll carve out a little time for college football.
“I’m going to try to follow it,” Allen said. “I’m going to follow it a little bit more. My coaches told me to start following it, too, start following it a little bit more. So, I’m going to follow it a little more whenever I can.”