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A Salute to the 2016 Alabama Seniors: Jonathan Allen

A key cog in two historically-great Alabama defensive units, Jonathan Allen made the most of his senior year at Alabama after forgoing the 2015 NFL Draft

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida
Jonathan Allen (#93) striking a very familiar pose...
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

What first-team All-SEC defensive end on a championship-winning team elects to forgo the imminent multi-million dollar offerings of the NFL by skipping the Draft and returning to his university for another championship run?

Jonathan Allen does.

And after a senior season that saw him amass more hardware than a Home Depot, it appears that Allen’s senior season gambit will pay off, as though he was highly-regarded following his outstanding junior campaign that saw the Tide outlast Clemson for the championship, there’s no doubt that the Bama defender will now be a top-5 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

With a potent combination of speed, athleticism, aggressiveness, power, and leadership, Allen has made a historical mark on an Alabama program that is so full of such marks that it resembles a graffiti-strewn wall in the underbelly of some far-away metropolis. The big defender from Leesburg, VA has proven that while there are plenty of recruiting busts each year, his consensus 5-star rating was totally legitimate.

In fact, Alabama’s Superman (he played the role perfectly in a Sportscenter Top-10 play against Texas A&M in which he leapt and extended – superhero-style – over a submarining running back en route to a soaring sack of quarterback Trevor Knight) may be the single-most important Tide recruit of the last five years in terms of production and his role as the pivot point of Nick Saban’s defensive philosophy. Allen has been active since his freshman year, and in his last two seasons, on two separate championship-contending teams, one could argue the defensive end has been the catalyst, the anchor, for the Tide’s tremendous success along the defensive front as the Saban defense evolved to meet the demands of the spread-heavy offensive migration currently underway in the college game.

The High School Years

Allen was considered a sure-fire prospect coming out of Stone Bridge High School in Leesburg, VA. Being a far-off prospect, many Tide faithful weren’t familiar with Allen’s high school exploits under head coach Mickey Thompson, but as a prep star, Allen did everything he could to warrant the high rating he received from various national recruiting services.

As a senior, Allen amassed 119 tackles with nine sacks, six fumble recoveries, eight passes broken up, six blocked kicks, and seven quarterback hurries. He had already caught the eye of college recruiters after a successful junior season in which he recorded 102 stops, 15 sacks, and seven blocked kicks. As a sophomore, Allen had 89 tackles, a whopping 20 sacks, and eight forced fumbles.

These stats resulted in many accolades for the prep phenom, as he was a two-time first-team All-State selection. As a senior, he was an Army All-American, a first-team Parade All-American, a first-team MaxPreps All-American, and a second-team USA Today All-American. In addition, Allen was named the 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year in Virginia. The various national recruiting services had the big lineman/ linebacker rated highly, as he was the number 11 player overall and the number two OLB according to 247 sports, and the number 11 overall player and number two weakside defensive end according to

After being courted by almost every major program on the Eastern Seaboard, Allen selected Alabama over a host of suitors, including Florida, Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Stanford, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech.

The College Years

Allen was a perfect fit for an Alabama defense that by 2013 was in flux, philosophically speaking. Saban, after watching his usually brutal, powerful defenses struggle against faster, fast-paced spread offenses fielded by his SEC rivals, had decided a chance was in order. He began to speak in press conferences about creating a lighter, faster defensive front that could flex to better manage the rigors imposed by the developing HUNH trend. Saban wanted to stock his defense with players who could not only line up and play slobber-knocking pro-style teams like LSU, but could also exhibit the quickness and athleticism up front to shrink the spaces created by spread teams like Auburn and Ole Miss and remain effective in pass rush.

Allen was one of the players who became the face of this change, as he had great size and strength, but was laterally quick and dynamic as an athlete. The versatile lineman was exactly what Saban had envisioned in his explosive new defense: an athlete with a physically imposing body who would play tackle to tackle for four quarters without becoming winded. Allen has lived up to that paradigm in his time at Alabama, and his contributions are a part of the Tide’s overall success in becoming a defensive unit that can smash pro-style and spread offenses with equal aplomb.

The native Virginian’s contributions to the Tide defense began soon after he arrived in Tuscaloosa. As a freshman in 2013, Allen started the season as a back-up on the depth chart, but performed his way into a more prominent role in the rotation on the defensive front. In 13 games, Allen recorded respectable stats, with 16 tackles, half a sack, a forced fumble, and a quarterback hurry. Allen had the best game of his first season against UT-Chattanooga, when he had three tackles and a forced fumble in route to the Tide staff naming him a Defensive Player of the Week designee.

Though he had a solid season by freshman standards, it was his sophomore year that saw Allen begin his ascent into Crimson Tide lore. The sophomore became an established pass rush specialist on a Crimson Tide defense that was loaded enough to make a run into the first-ever College Football Playoffs. In the process, Allen was named an Associated Press first-team All-SEC lineman after recording 33 tackles, seven quarterback hurries, 5.5 sacks, and 11.5 tackles for loss (good for second on the team). Allen opened the season with a strong performance against West Virginia, recording five tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack en route to Defensive Player of the Week honors from the Tide coach staff. He would go on to receive that honor two more times (following games against FAU and Tennessee). Allen also took his first step into Crimson Tide legend when he saved the day against a plucky Arkansas team that fought Bama tooth and nail. Allen, as he had done repeatedly in high school, went after an Arkansas PAT after the Razorbacks took a touchdown lead over Bama. At the time, Arkansas was up 13-7, but Allen’s blocked extra point attempt became the deciding play after Alabama managed a fourth quarter score and PAT to secure the victory.

As a junior, Allen became one of the leaders of a Tide defensive unit that simply would not be denied. With historic talent and depth in the front seven, Alabama’s defense dominated opponents versus the run and in pursuit of the passer, and Allen was a huge piece of this success. With opposing offensive lines focused on Robinson and Reed, Allen became a true weapon for the Tide as a pass rusher and run stuffer, ranking 17th nationally and second in the SEC in sacks with 12. Allen also recorded 36 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up, and six quarterback hurries. All of Allen’s 12 sacks came against Power 5 opponents (11 of them ranked at the time they played Bama). Allen was named a Defensive Player of the Week five times in 2015 by the Tide staff (Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn, and Michigan State). Allen had probably his best game of the season against Mississippi State, as he made seven tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble, and a quarterback hurry. By the time the season was over, Allen was once again named to the coaches and Associated Press All-American squads as a first-teamer, and he was widely regarded as a late first-/ early second-round pick in the looming NFL Draft.

Somewhat surprisingly to many pundits, Allen announced not long after the Tide’s championship-winning victory over Clemson that he would be returning for his senior season to win another championship and further prove himself.

"I want to become an every-down player, show that I can play the run better, those are a couple of things I wasn't really required to do in the past," Allen said in August. "But definitely this year, that's a role I'm trying to get better at."

Some thought it a gamble for the versatile lineman, as he’d already proven himself to pro scouts, and another year in the rough-and-tumble SEC could result in an injury that would derail his promising career. However, always a competitor, Allen entered the 2016 season undaunted as the leader of what would become a legendary pass rushing front seven.

The gamble seems to have paid dividends for Allen, as his draft stock has continued to rise while he and his Tide teammates have dominated the opposition in a still-unblemished 2016 season. Always considered a solid NFL prospect, Allen will likely go in the top-five in the Draft next spring, as he has proven himself the best defensive end in college football this season.

After recording 52 tackles, 13 quarterback hurries, 34 pressures, 8.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss, two passes broken up, and a blocked field goal, Allen has been named to nearly every major All-American team fielded (USA Today, The Sporting News, and Pro Football Focus, to name a few). After earning Defensive Player of the Week honors from the Tide coaching staff seven times in 2016 (USC, Western Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas A&M, LSU, UT-Chattanooga, and Auburn), Allen entered the big leagues of collegiate gridiron hardware as the winner of the Bednarik Award, the Nagurski Award, and the Ted Hendrick Award (given to the top defensive end in college football…Allen is the first Tide player to receive the honor).

Allen also contributed to the Tide’s incredible run of non-offensive touchdowns in the 2016 season. The athletic end had two fumbles returned for touchdown this season, including a 75-yard touchdown return against Ole Miss in the Tide’s comeback victory. There aren’t many 292 pound defensive ends with two touchdown returns in a single season, and Allen’s accomplishment speaks volumes about his athleticism and awareness.

After Alabama

Allen is currently rated the number one defensive end prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft, and has the credentials to support a top-five Draft selection. Some pundits place him as high as the first pick, but no one credible has him going past the fifth pick of the first round. Allen is an incredible talent with unmatched athleticism for a man his size, ferocious instincts, and leadership clout that will allow him to fit in easily in an NFL locker room.

Alabama fans may not fully appreciate what Allen has to offer from an ability standpoint. Defensive linemen with the size to play tackle and the speed to excel at end are rare, and Allen offers just that. Though smaller than the likes of Reed and Robinson, he is rated as the number two interior lineman against the run by His pass rush credentials are also unrivaled, as he is tied for third on Alabama’s single-season sack leaders list behind Derrick Thomas and, well, Derrick Thomas. (Allen is sixth on the Alabama career sack leaders list, fwiw.) He is strong and fast (his average in the 40 is 4.85, but he’s been clocked at 4.75...astounding for a nearly 300-pound man). In an era of 300-plus pound tackles and light, fast 260-pound ends, Allen is a true anomaly: a player capable of bridging the gap and doing literally anything his coordinator needs him to do at a high level.

The aforementioned sack of Knight (click here if you need a reminder) in the Texas A&M game was a microcosm of Allen’s skill set. He squared up on the line, and destroyed the guard with a textbook swim move. Allen stepped inside with quickness, sensing that after beating the guard, he would easily penetrate the backfield. All that was between him and Knight was the Aggie running back, who went low on Allen. In an act of sheer athleticism, Allen quickly hurdled the attempt at a block, launching himself horizontally towards Knight. When he made contact with the startled quarterback, he wrapped up (with neither foot on the ground, mind you) and drove Knight into the turf with a fundamentally-sound tackle. That play is a nutshell-view of everything pro scouts love about Allen. His instincts, his technique, his athleticism, his raw power…these are the reasons Allen will be a multi-millionaire come this time next year.

It's plays such as those that get the attention of fans, but Allen’s consistent, play-to-play ability to move from tackle to end and back inside again is even more impressive to pro scouts and general managers. Likewise, his ability to harass the passer while remaining fundamentally sound against the run will win him points with prospective NFL employers.

Then there’s this clip from the Tide’s game against Tennessee that displays Allen’s full skill set…

Allen bull rushes the left tackle and absolutely manhandles him, pushing him deep into the pocket before slipping him and taking a bead on quarterback Josh Dobbs. Feeling the pressure, Dobbs flushes up in the pocket as the Bama defense closes off his lane. Allen never gives up, however, running down the fleet-footed quarterback and getting in on the tackle from behind with crushing ferocity. He is not only technically sound, he is powerful in mauling the tackle, he is athletic enough to run down a dual-threat quarterback, he is relentless enough to never stop on the play, and he tackles with perfect form.

Quarterbacks and left tackles make the real money in the NFL, and right behind them are all-star defensive ends. Allen is set for a huge payday, and like star defensive linemen of the past, he has the ability to make a Day-One impact on the team that drafts him. He will be a perennial Pro Bowl performer, a player with all the talent and explosiveness of Ndamukong Suh and none of the baggage. Allen would have been all of these things without coming back to Bama in 2016. But the fact that he did, and that he has had the kind of year he recorded in 2016, makes him all the more marketable to teams in need of a game-changing defensive lineman in the 2017 NFL Draft.

(If you’re in to the whole visual thing, take a look at this clip to see Allen in action as a high school player, or this vid (or this one) of some of his work at Alabama. Here is Allen’s other scoop and score against A&M.)