In what became a historic University of Kentucky football season, Josh Allen seemed always to deliver when the Wildcats needed it most.
The dynamic pass rusher clinched UK’s streak-busting victory at Florida when he forced Gators’ quarterback Feleipe Franks to fumble on the game’s final play from scrimmage.
Four other times in what became only the third 10-win football season in Kentucky history, a late Allen hit on the opposing quarterback was the clinching moment in a UK victory.
After the Cats (10-3) beat Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, Allen had set Kentucky records for quarterback sacks in a season (17) and for a career (31.5) and had collected a bevy of national defensive player of the year awards.
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For those reasons, Josh Allen has been elected the 2018 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year in a vote by media members from around the commonwealth.
“Josh took the Wildcats’ defense to another level this season,” wrote Lee K. Howard of Lexington’s WKYT-TV. “He affected almost every defensive play, even if he wasn’t in on the tackle.”
Added Gene Abell, the former Herald-Leader sports editor: “(Allen) not only made the big plays, he made them when it was most needed. It’s impressive when the playmaker on a 10-win, SEC team is on defense.”
UK football dominated the 2018 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting. Allen prevailed in a tight race over his Wildcats teammate, running back Benny Snell, who finished second. It is the first time in the 38-year history of the award that teammates finished one-two.
Wildcats Coach Mark Stoops was fourth, narrowly behind Triple Crown-winning racehorse Justify in third. Asia Durr, the star of the University of Louisville’s women’s basketball NCAA Tournament Final Four team, was fifth.
From a record 176 votes cast by Kentucky media members, present and past, Snell was named on one more ballot (167) than Allen (166). However, the linebacker held a decisive 67-37 advantage in first-place votes, and voting is weighted to give those more points. Fifty-three ballots had the UK football stars 1-2.
Media members in Lexington and Louisville placed Allen first, while Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky favored Snell.
“I never remember having a harder time picking a winner,” wrote Larry Vaught of vaughtsviews.com. “I went with Josh Allen just because his dominating season that made him consensus national defensive player of the year is the type of year one seldom sees.”
Turning pro after three seasons, Snell will leave UK as the school’s all-time leading rusher (3,873 yards). Voters saluted the Westerville, Ohio, product for both the physicality and the pizzazz he injected into Kentucky football.
Snell “was the best pound-for-pound running back in the nation,” wrote Neal Bradley, the radio play-by-play voice of Murray State football and men’s basketball. “He had Kentucky fans talking football in December. That in itself is a miracle.”
Added Terry Meiners of Louisviille’s WHAS-AM 840: “(Snell is a) once-in-a-lifetime talent who plays for the fans in the nosebleed seats.”
Yet, ultimately, Allen’s on-field excellence in 2018 — and the compelling underdog story beneath it — carried the day.
Overlooked in recruiting after moving from Alabama to New Jersey before his senior year of high school, Allen was committed to FCS program Monmouth until a prep football coach in the Garden State tipped off Kentucky about him.
Arriving in Lexington as a two-star prospect, Allen transformed himself in four years from an undersized ex-wideout into a pass-rushing force. Eschewing the NFL Draft following his junior season, Allen came back to Kentucky as a senior and produced havoc in 2018.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound product of Montclair, N.J., led the SEC in tackles for loss (21.5), quarterback sacks (17) and forced fumbles (five) and led UK in tackles (88). Not a one-trick act, Allen also broke up four passes.
Allen won the Bronko Nagurski Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy, all connoting the national defensive player of the year.
A consensus First-Team All-American, Allen also received the Jack Lambert Award, recognizing the nation’s top linebacker, and was chosen SEC Defensive Player of the Year by both the Associated Press and the league’s coaches.
“Some people laughed when I voted (Allen) third on my Heisman (Trophy) ballot, and then he won every major defensive award,” wrote Kent Taylor of Louisville’s WAVE-TV. “Maybe I should have had him higher.”
Added Joe Mathis of Harrodsburg’s WHBN-AM: “Typically, football fans love watching an exciting offense. This year, I couldn’t wait for the Cats’ defense to get on the field because I wanted to see what Josh Allen was going to do next.”
Josh Allen is the 2018 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year.