Friday, August 10, 2018
BOSTON — Imagine what passers-by must have thought about Zach Allen’s father on those bitter cold Connecticut days when they saw him pitching batting practice to his pre-teen son at the park.
Must be one of those crazed Little League dads, sucking all the fun out of the game.
“What they didn’t realize was I was begging Zachary, ‘You know, can’t we go in? It’s freezing out here,’” Michael Allen said.
With some prodding by a persistent and prescient high school coach, Zach Allen put down the bat and glove and decided to concentrate on football. Now, Allen’s regimented focus and first-to-arrive-last-to-leave work ethic has made him into one of the best defensive linemen in college football as he heads into his senior season at Boston College.
That’s a real feat this year.
The NFL draft next year will be filled with blue chip defensive linemen, highlighted by Houston’s Ed Oliver, Michigan’s Rashan Gary, Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and the entire Clemson defensive front. Allen doesn’t have the name recognition or magazine covers, but NFL scouts know all about him. He was one of only two defensive linemen credited with at least 100 tackles last season and might have slipped into the first round of the last draft had he decided to leave early. Instead he chose to return to anchor the defense for what could be the best BC team since Matt Ryan was quarterback there 12 years ago.
“You want to be part of that so you can come back 10, 15, 30 years with your family and say, ‘Yeah, we were able to come together and we were able to do this,’” Zach Allen said.
Allen excelled in baseball, basketball and football growing up. During his freshman year at New Cannan High School in Connecticut, Allen came to the conclusion he needed to drop one sport if he wanted to continue playing at a high level and getting straight A’s. Since he dreamed of being the next Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter, he chose to quit football right before the start of spring practice.
New Cannan coach Lou Marinelli did not like Allen’s idea.
“I said, ‘Give me your father’s phone number,’” said Marinelli, who is going into his 38th season coaching at the school.
Marinelli left a voicemail for Michael Allen, who remembers it well.
“’Mr. Allen, I have your son standing in my office. Could you give me a call? I just heard the stupidest something-something thing in 40 years of coaching,’” Allen said, cleaning up Marinelli’s language.
Marinelli moved Zach Allen to varsity, played him at outside linebacker and the Al-lens have been thanking him ever since.
Connecticut does not produce many highly recruited football players. Allen and his family had modest expectations.
“We thought he’d go maybe to an Ivy school and play football,” said Irene Allen, Zach’s mother.
Everything changed on Dec. 3, 2013, Allen’s junior year, when he got his first FBS scholarship offer from Pittsburgh.
“I was blown away,” Michael Allen said.
According to 247 Sports’ recruiting rankings, Allen was a three-star prospect, the fourth-best player in Connecticut in 2015. No. 1 was Clemson’s Christian Wilkins, a five-star recruit who played at Suffield Academy, a private prep school.
Wilkins, like Allen — though more surprisingly — chose to return for his senior season, adding yet another potential first-round pick at a position that is one of the most valued by NFL teams. And, after quarterback, maybe the most challenging to fill.
Unlike most of those players, who have been on the path to the draft since high school, Allen’s progress has been gradual. He played some as a 250-pound freshman and was part of the rotation as a sophomore. Last year, he rarely left the field. He had six sacks, 15½ tackles for loss and was one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s breakout stars. The NFL began noticing and after the season Allen had a decision to make. He received a second-round grade from the NFL’s college advisory committee and got some first-round feedback.
Allen was invited to the NCAA’s Elite Athlete Symposium, held in conjunction with the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
He said he won’t pay attention to the competition he will likely face when it comes draft time — potential All-Americans such as Gary and Alabama’s Raekwon Davis — but when BC did its own combine training this offseason Allen did take note of how he stacked up against the players who went through the actual combine this year.
“I can compete with those guys,” Allen said.
A turning point in his development was the arrival of Paul Pasqualoni to Boston College as defensive line coach after Allen’s freshman season. Pasqualoni is a former head coach at Syracuse and Connecticut and spent time in the NFL, too, including a season coaching All-Pro J.J. Watt as defensive line coach in Houston.
“He had stories about guys and how they let it consume their world and how they were all about football,” Allen said.
Pasqualoni did the teaching and former BC teammate Harold Landry, a second-round pick in April by Tennessee, set the example.
“He really was a true pro,” Allen said of Landry. “The way he approached everything. The mindset, the discipline.”
Now Allen is the one setting the example.
“He carries himself not in a rude way or a rude manner, but you can tell attention is like demanded,” said A.J. Dillon, Boston College’s star sophomore running back. “Zach’s probably one of the most accountable people I’ve been around.”
Allen spends hours in the training room every day: stretching, treatment, cold tub. Even after games, when it’s time to celebrate or commiserate, the routine takes precedence.
“We’re always sitting there in the dark at Alumni Stadium, waiting for him to come out,” Irene Allen said.
Zach Allen sleeps nine to 10 hours a night. Most days his dinner is chicken — cooked on his roommates’ George Foreman Grill — brown rice and vegetables.
“I’ll have a bowl of just plain spinach with carrots, tomatoes, red peppers, but no dressing and everyone thinks I’m crazy for that one,” Allen said.
He rarely cheats. Maybe sushi or a burger.
“After which you always feel awful. What did I just do?” Allen said. “I think you need it for sanity so you don’t become a machine.”
This might sound like a dull existence, but make no mistake: Allen is having a blast grinding through each day.
“I always joke my biggest fear is working a desk job,” he said, “because I love what I do right now.”
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