In a multitude of minuscule ways, Josh Allen has been training his entire life to be an outside linebacker.
Rarely has there been a direct path, or a path of least resistance in front of him.
The Kentucky senior always has had to twist and turn, to contort his body to get around a 320-pound guy — whether real or metaphoric — standing in the way of his desired destination.
Allen, whose name is being mentioned among potential first-round NFL Draft picks next year, has had plenty of bypasses and bumps along the way.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Those detours led Allen to an elementary school assembly this spring where he talked to kids during special needs awareness week about working hard and being fine with being different.
“My message is you’re going to have challenges, you’ve just got to make the best of it,” Allen said this summer, brown eyes wide, smile slightly wider. “You’ve got to look for the good parts of everything. That’s how I dealt with a lot of that stuff.
“Nothing ever comes easy.”
It’s a lesson Allen learned early as one of two twin boys in a house full of older sisters. Josh and his twin, Isaiah, formed quite the pesky, dynamic duo.
“My mom was a single parent with six kids in the house, working two jobs,” Josh said of Kim Allen. “It was really hard at some points.”
It was especially hard for Allen, who always has been a bit of a jokester. But those jokes often came out in fits and starts.
Allen stuttered for much of his childhood, still does, he said. “It’s just not as much as I used to when I was younger.”
Allen always had a quick wit, but his mouth sometimes betrayed him.
“He wanted to tell us stuff so bad that he didn’t even take the time to say it,” his mom said of the stuttering problem that landed Josh in special education classes growing up.
He made many friends in those classes, but he longed to make different friends, to switch classrooms like the other kids at his school.
“I literally had a teacher telling my family that I wasn’t capable,” said Allen, who also has since been diagnosed with ADHD.
After so many years in the special education system in New Jersey, Allen wanted a change of scenery. He wanted to see if he could be like those kids he watched from his classroom window.
So after middle school, Allen decided to leave New Jersey and move in with relatives in Alabama to get a fresh start at Abbeville High School.
“I had to show people that I was capable of doing this, going to classes by myself, doing the workload, doing everything right,” he said. “I had to prove myself.”
‘It’s a day I’ll never forget’
It was at Abbeville that Allen’s football career almost ended. Three separate times.
The natural athlete decided he was going to avoid football in that small Alabama town and stick with basketball, like three of his older sisters, who all went on to play at the college level.
“I didn’t want to play with those country kids,” Allen said, laughing. “When I moved to Alabama, it’s like I’m starting over. These are big country kids playing real football, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to play.’”
Allen’s uncle convinced the freshman to try out. As the linebacker now prepares to tell the story of the near-end of his football career, he takes a deep, cleansing breath.
“Very first practice,” he started. “Oh my God. It’s a day I’ll never forget.”
At the start of camp, Allen turned his back after a play and found that his cleats were no longer planted in grass.
“I’m walking back and some dude picks me up and body slams me on the ground,” Allen said. “I tried to catch myself and messed my elbow up.”
When he got to the locker room, Allen said he was jumped by a group of players.
“I’m crying,” he recalled. “I get in the car with my aunt and I’m balling tears, crying. I went home and said, ‘I’m done.’”
If Jill Barber is honest, she was OK with him being done.
“He was a lot smaller than he is now,” his aunt said, noting that he was a freshman playing against seniors who had been playing together and lifting weights together their entire lives.
Allen was the newcomer, and it’s never easy being the newcomer.
“There were a couple of rough, rough, rough kids. I was really upset about some things,” Barber said. “But my husband was like, ‘Listen, he’s playing football. That’s what football’s about.’”
Two days later, Allen returned to the practice field in time for a pursuit drill where the whole defense lines up to chase down a single ball carrier.
Guess who found the ball in his hands.
“Pow! I get hit. Seriously, so hard,” Allen said, telling the story with arms flying as fast as words. “This is varsity and I’m a freshman. I get up on one knee and then, ‘Bam!’ They hit me again. So I just lay down there and they jump on top of me. I was hurt. I quit again.”
Drowning out the voice in his head and the pain that had taken over his body, Allen found himself back on that football field again the next day.
He was the ball carrier for that drill every single day for a season.
And he didn’t play a single snap in a game that year.
“He always kept at it even when it was hard,” said Jill Barber, his aunt.
Allen went back the next year at least 3 inches taller and a little bit tougher.
“My sophomore year, I started varsity receiver,” Allen said. “I had the best hands. I was slow as dirt, but I could catch.”
Country cooking and mandated workouts helped him grow up and out a bit before his junior season, when he started to excel and accelerate a bit, too.
By the end of his time in Alabama, Allen was an all-state receiver with 1,150 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior.
When Allen announced that he wanted to graduate from Montclair High School back in New Jersey, his aunt and uncle understood.
But it was hard to watch him go.
“I cried a lot when he left,” Barber said. “He’s always had a way of making me feel really, really special. He makes a lot of people feel special.”
Diamond in the rough
While making the move from Alabama to New Jersey before his senior year was good for Allen, it wasn’t great for his recruiting opportunities.
He fell through the recruiting service cracks. And he changed positions from wide receiver to defensive end when he arrived at Montclair High School for his senior season.
His high school coach, John Fiore, did everything he could to get Allen on the radar of nearby schools like Rutgers.
“Nobody would listen to any of us about him,” Fiore said of Allen, who went on to lead the state in sacks that year and had a touchdown catch for the Mounties, who went undefeated and won a state title.
Any school would’ve been lucky to have him, said Fiore, who has helped develop top-level college talent at Montclair through the years.
“He’s just a great kid. Forget about football. Awesome kid. Good character, does the right thing and he was the perfect mix living in Alabama for three years and growing up in Jersey here,” Fiore said. “He’s the kind of kid who can adapt to any type of environment.”
Allen initially committed to Monmouth, a nearby FCS school that had shown him the most interest.
As that was happening, Kentucky had a commitment fall through, and good timing left the Cats with a scholarship available and in need of an outside linebacker.
“We started looking through the film and we liked what we saw” of Allen, said UK Coach Mark Stoops of the find, which ended in a former Cats assistant seeing Allen at his high school and then putting him on a plane to Lexington for a visit just a few hours later.
As Stoops sits in his office overlooking the practice fields at Kentucky, the coach recalls something he learned from Jimbo Fisher at Florida State.
“It’s not always the first 15 in your class, sometimes it’s the last one, two or three that make all the difference, the ones that nobody talks about and he’s the perfect example,” Stoops said of Allen.
A two-star who could turn into a superstar, potentially joining a mural on Stoops’ office wall of first-round draft picks he has coached.
“Those are the stories that make every coach proud,” Stoops continued. “That you find a diamond in the rough, that you find a kid, a humble, hard-working, talented young kid that nobody really knows about that you can potentially develop into a first-round draft pick.”
Two-star to first round?
It was in that same office about a year ago that Allen sat across from Stoops. The player’s life — already full of many detours and challenges — was about to get more complicated.
“I’m changing,” Stoops recalled Allen saying. His girlfriend was pregnant and his son was coming in January.
“His mindset switched just then,” Stoops said. “It’s the truth. He sat right here. He told me that and I’ve seen it everyday since. … I’ve seen a change since then.”
Allen started watching elite pass rushers in the NFL, studying their tendencies, mimicking their moves. Last season, the junior led Kentucky in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (seven). He also had a team-best four quarterback hurries, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles and an interception.
“I had to step up,” said Allen, whose son, Wesley, was born in January. “What I had done my sophomore year wasn’t good enough for my junior year. I had to take another step. I was like, ‘I’ve got to grow up, be more mature because I have to take care of a family now.’”
Allen knows he can be even better this season with a more sculpted body and a stronger frame, weighing in at 255 pounds.
Stoops is excited to see what the future holds for Allen, one of three players who will represent UK at Southeastern Conference Media Days on Monday in Atlanta.
“He’s made drastic jumps; he’s changed himself from an NFL player to a bona fide day one pick,” Stoops said.
In a multitude of minuscule ways, Allen has been training for this season his whole life.
The lack of a direct path, the obstacles in his way have given Allen an edge, made him stronger.
“Things don’t always come easy to him,” Stoops said of the senior. “He has to work hard in school. He works his tail off at everything.
“Maybe other people put in half the effort and get better grades, but just appreciate it’s not all easy for him. He’s deserving everything he’s getting now.”