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How Kentucky pass rusher Josh Allen raised himself -- and a lowly SEC football program -- out of the basement to become one of this year's fast-rising prospects

By Chase Goodbread | Published Nov. 6, 2018

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Several times a day, the buzz above Josh Allen's head would captivate his attention.

It started with the bell, then the footsteps, followed by laughter and the warbled sound of several simultaneous conversations. Then, just like that, it would disappear, like a two-minute cocktail party that could be heard overhead, but never seen. Students were switching classrooms between class periods at Rand Elementary in Montclair, N.J., and it was a painful reminder of Allen's segregated loneliness. From the basement of the school building, Allen longed to be amid that bustling burst of interaction.

It sounded like so much fun; at once a rush and a release, albeit a brief one, from the pressure of the school day. But for the small handful of kids placed in Rand's special education program, the basement -- cordoned off from the rest of the school population -- was where they spent the majority of their seven-hour school day.

Allen received an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for speech therapy, but eventually overcame it and assimilated into the regular classroom setting.

Overcoming, it turns out, has become his lifelong habit.

From the stutter that has now all but disappeared to an underlying case of ADHD which wasn't formally diagnosed until many years later, the Kentucky outside linebacker has made a routine of outperforming expectations. Nobody saw a future college player when he was a weak, skinny high school freshman who admits to being intimidated by the competition. Nobody saw a future high NFL draft pick when he was overlooked and dismissed as a two-star recruit who came within weeks of signing with an FCS school as his only scholarship offer.

And certainly, not after 40 years of Kentucky football futility -- in which the program averaged just two conference wins per season -- did anyone see a resurgence. But there was Kentucky last year, securing its first winning SEC season in four decades in a resurrection led by the least likeliest of candidates -- a hero around campus no longer hidden away from the rest of the student body.

Where he once recoiled from reading aloud in a classroom, fearful of his stutter being mocked, Allen now volunteers to speak to school children. Where he once went unseen from a school basement, he spent his last year at UK seeing his image promoted all over campus – and as far away as New York’s Times Square – as a face of the Wildcats program.

Success for first-round picks is all about meeting the highest of expectations. But as NFL clubs conduct their deep-dive research on Allen ahead of the draft, they'll discover a player whose arrival as an elite draft prospect hasn't been marked so much by meeting expectations when they're high.

For Allen, it's been more about raising them when they're low.

The children in the special ed program at Rand Elementary enjoyed brief moments each day outside the basement -- lunch, recess and, of course, after-school activities like sports -- but isolation was rough on self-esteem. Although Jason Simon was 2 years older than Allen, he remained in special ed classes for a year after his classmate returned to the school's regular population.

"That was a motivator for me," said Simon, now a linebacker at Monroe College in New York. "Nobody wanted to be down there, because everyone knew what that basement was for. When Josh went into regular classes, that showed me you could get out of the basement, that you didn't always have to be in a special class."

Still close friends today, they both look back on those classes positively from an educational standpoint. A lot of creative learning went on, and it came at the individualized pace that special education strives to provide.

"They would try to get me all the way through the alphabet, just saying letters, without a stutter," Allen said. "We would play speech games, too. I worked hard at it, and it was the best thing for me."

Problems were overcome.

Strides were made.

Triumphs happened.

But basement isolation created a social divide in the student body that persisted even after Allen returned to a regular classroom. At best, Allen said, the perception was that he was different. At worst, it was that he was inferior.

"You were just looked at differently," Allen said. "Some kids would shut down socially. I saw it happen a couple times."

It's an aspect of special education that challenges schools to be as inclusive as possible for students with special needs, while still recognizing the reality that mainstreaming them in a regular class setting might not be the proper or most effective way to educate them.

Allen's feelings about being separated largely mirror what his mother, Kim, felt when she first saw her son's classroom environment. She and the school agreed he needed specialized help and she knew he was receiving it, but she wasn't initially aware that he would be separated. Her assumption, instead, was that a teaching assistant would be helping her son in regular classes. Complicating the situation was that Josh's fraternal twin, Isaiah, who also stuttered but had less of a problem than his brother, had not been placed in special education.

"I didn't like that situation," Kim said. "I didn't think twins should be separated like that. I realized I needed to be more active in the PTA, more active with my child."

The youngest age at which Allen can recall being teased for his stuttering is in the first grade. The insults weren't clever or sophisticated, but kids reacted to it in perhaps the only way kids at such a young age know how: they parroted.

"If he would say something and stutter, kids would repeat what he said right back to him with a stutter," Simon said. "He didn't want them to show them that it hurt him. But I knew. I could see from his facial expression. His mood would change, because any other time, he was always smiling."

Allen's mother found that he would often get overly anxious to get his point across in a conversation. He especially had trouble with words that began with "s" and "sh", and when he slowed his thought process and relaxed, she said, his speech was fine. At school, however, he didn't like reading out loud in front of other kids when asked to by a teacher. Humor served as his defense mechanism with other children; his demeanor was kind, but his self-image was fragile.

"Plus, I was ugly," Allen said. "So, I got clowned on a lot. But I decided if people were going to clown me, I would clown them right back. So, I was always joking. I wasn't going to fight them. I was just going to give it back to them -- that's how I fought it."

Sitting at a conference table in Kentucky's Joe Craft Football Training Facility, Allen delves into an entirely different layer of his developmental challenge, one that took far longer to beat because it took far longer to recognize. But first, he demonstrates with each of five objects within immediate reach -- a water bottle, a cell phone, a pen, a notebook and a laptop -- and quickly touches each with alternating hands.

"I was always touching stuff, playing with stuff, fidgeting with my hands," Allen said. "If I didn't have schoolwork in front of me, I couldn't sit still. Deep down, I thought I might have ADHD."

His informal diagnosis was correct, but it wouldn't be confirmed until Kentucky had him tested as a freshman in 2015.

By the time Allen entered the sixth grade at Mount Hebron Middle School, now known as Buzz Aldrin Middle School (the famous astronaut is from there), his speech had vastly improved and he was well-liked among classmates. Jenn Kosuda assisted kids with special needs as a second teacher in a regular classroom environment -- exactly the setting Kim Allen had wanted for her son at Rand -- with an emphasis on organizational skills and study skills. Kosuda remembers Allen flourishing.

"She was a pivotal part of my life around that time," Allen said.

Still, he was a ball of energy who had trouble staying on task. His uncle, Gregory Hines, was a security officer at Mount Hebron -- he had transferred in from another school just as Allen entered the sixth grade -- and helped keep an eye on his nephew. ADHD made schoolwork difficult for Allen even into high school, but unlike a stutter that could be easily identified and monitored, ADHD can cloak itself in presumptions that its sufferers merely need to outgrow a youthful hyperactive nature. It did so with Allen.

"It was a team effort to stay on top of him. It was pretty bad at that time," Hines said. "If I caught him running the halls, I would put a stop to it. But he had the resources and support of family and teachers, and he could do the schoolwork. He was a smart kid. He couldn't always keep his mind on the work, but he could do the work. He proved that."

Montclair High offensive line coach Eugene Kline recalls a road trip for a game against St. Mark's High School in Wilmington, Del., sitting one row in front of Allen on a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride home.

"He did not shut up from the minute his butt hit the seat until we got all the way back to Montclair," Kline said with a laugh. "It's late at night, we'd just played a game. He's sitting behind me the entire ride. I turned around and said, 'Josh, you've got to be tired, bro. Take a nap.' "

Following his formal ADHD diagnosis at UK, Allen received an Adderall prescription that finally helped his concentration issues subside. These days, he only takes one if he needs a long period of concentration while studying for an important exam.

By the time Allen graduated from Mount Hebron, he sought a breakaway. Living with four sisters had worn on him enough to serve as a secondary motivation, but more than that, he'd grown weary of the special-needs label and wanted a fresh academic start at a new school.

The time had come to transform once again, and this time, a different school in Montclair wouldn't do. Allen convinced his mother to allow him to move 1,000 miles from home and live with his aunt and uncle in Abbeville, Ala.

"I wanted to prove I could do the work somewhere else," he said.

Allen spent three years at Abbeville High, but it only took about three days to learn that he'd have to prove his toughness much more emphatically than his classwork. Intimidated by what his uncle, James Barber, called "Alabama football mystique," Allen was a skinny wide receiver whose family had made its athletic mark in basketball. Three of his sisters played college hoops, including one, Myisha Hines-Allen, who is a forward for the WNBA's Washington Mystics; and uncle Greg was a fifth-round pick of the Golden State Warriors out of Hampton University in 1983.

Football wasn't even really his game, and he'd moved to a place where it was played on a different level. Allen recalls weighing around 130 pounds when he first took the football field for practice as a ninth-grader. Once again, like so many years before when his stutter drew ridicule, he found himself at a disadvantage.

"They were all pretty physically developed athletes," he said. "I wasn't."

Allen got the harsh new-kid-in-school treatment from teammates who initially tried to make him quit. When players could select their foes in one-on-one hitting drills, Allen got picked every time. Even in the locker room, he'd get pushed around in what Barber described as "customary initiation."

One day in practice, he was picked up from behind and slammed to the turf, resulting in a wrist injury that still bothers him some to this day. Then came another eye-opener: the allowance for corporal punishment in public schools under Alabama state law.

"If you got an F, that's two licks. If you got a D, that's one lick. I get to practice one day and the coach is walking around with a paddle holding everybody's report cards," Allen said. "I got five licks -- two Fs and a D. All anyone was wearing was sweatpants. I was about to cry."

Had Allen's ADHD diagnosis come before he entered high school, perhaps he wouldn't have received two F's and a D. During his time at UK, his ADHD medication was effective, so it's certainly plausible that it would have improved his ability to focus on high school studies. Maybe a simple pill he needed long before it was prescribed could have saved him from bending over for five paddle swats at the hands of his own school system.

He'll never know.

Three times, he quit the team. But with a mix of persistence and encouragement from his aunt and uncle, he stuck with the sport. As a sophomore, he hit a growth spurt and developed into a 6-foot-4, speedy receiver with a muscular 200-pound frame by the time he was a junior. Two years after teammates had nearly run him out of the sport, he was a 1,000-yard receiver and a first-team all-state selection.

Allen returned to Montclair for his senior year, and his old friends could hardly believe the physical change. Coach John Fiore saw much more than a wide receiver in Allen, and made him a two-way starter for the Mounties in 2014.

"We put his hand on the ground and told him he was going to rush the passer, and three months later, he's got 22.5 sacks to lead the whole state," Fiore said. "But colleges had no idea he could pass rush because he'd been in Alabama playing receiver."

Fiore tried desperately to convince Rutgers to offer Allen, but the Scarlet Knights had no interest. Only Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., thought enough of Allen to offer a scholarship, and he was committed -- until UK came in with a late offer of its own.

The two were certainly a match from an underdog standpoint - Allen an unknown recruit with only Monmouth as an alternative, and Kentucky having spent four decades barely treading water in the SEC standings. They emerged together last fall with Allen's cresting draft stock and the Wildcats enjoying their best season since 1977.

The day Kentucky sent an assistant to Montclair High to secure the commitment, Rutgers was on campus, as well, recruiting one of the school's juniors. When the Rutgers recruiter asked Fiore why Kentucky was there, Fiore told him, "They know an NFL player when they see one."

In late spring of 2017, Allen's girlfriend, Kaitlyn Brooke, informed him the two were going to be parents, and the rising pass rusher wanted UK coach Mark Stoops to know yet another new version of Allen would be forthcoming. Stoops already considered Allen one of Kentucky's hardest-working and most responsible players; there was no turnaround needed. But Allen nevertheless resolved to take his game to another level for his unborn son's sake.

"He told me that day, 'It's on, coach. You don't have to worry about me. I'm a changed man,' " Stoops said. "Most fathers connect more when the baby is born. He didn't wait for that. He started preparing for it the minute he knew about the pregnancy."

Allen began hanging around the office of UK strength coach Mark Hill, himself a father of two, for lengthy talks about what he should expect. He accompanied Brooke to prenatal checkups, and teammates began noticing a more serious, more mature Allen. All the while, two crucial events loomed with concurrent anticipation: the baby's due date and the deadline for college underclassmen to declare early draft eligibility. Both were to arrive in January.

"If I was feeling heavy or getting tired, I just thought about him and pushed myself to work out harder," said Allen of his unborn son, Wesley DeVon. "He was my motivation every day, and he wasn't even here yet. He wasn't even a baby bump yet."

Allen logged seven sacks as a junior and was thought to be a likely mid-round draft pick, based on feedback from NFL evaluators who spoke to Stoops. Mid-round money is a temptation that can weigh heavily on an expectant father. But on Jan. 8, five days after Wesley's birth, Allen announced a choice that many draft prospects in the same position wouldn't have made: He would return to Kentucky for his senior season.

"He showed unbelievable maturity in his decision with that. We talked about it for a long time on many occasions," Stoops said. "He believed in himself to get into position not just for draft money, but for life-changing money. It helped us, it helped him. Ultimately he bet on himself and his team."

He resolved to add 20 pounds to a frame that NFL scouts considered too light for first-round consideration, and did so with help from a regimented nutrition program that had to work around a seafood allergy. He also embraced a burgeoning leadership role that resonated through a vastly improved UK defense that ranked 23rd in the nation last year at 338 yards per game.

A few days after the birth, Allen brought Wesley to the UK football weight room, a diaper bag on his shoulder, to show him off to Hill. Father and son have been largely inseparable since, and the physical resemblance between them is striking. NFL scouts will find reasons to nitpick Allen's on-field game, like they do with any draft prospect, but they won't have any concerns with his off-field priorities. The bio of Allen's Instagram page simply reads, "Father to Wesley DeVon Allen."

"Some guys want to go out and party after games," Hill said. "Josh will say, 'Coach, I'm going to go change some diapers.' He knows what he wants out of all this."

He knows what he'd want for Wesley, too.

If his pride and joy were to develop the same need for special education that he had as a child, Allen's answer will land on a single issue that impacts every need in the special ed spectrum: socialization.

"Schools have the best intentions, but the isolation is the worst part of it," Allen said. "If he needs extra help, I would hope someone could give it to him without taking him out of regular classes. Not isolating, I think, is more helpful."

A large, white projection screen rolls down the wall in Kentucky's meeting room for linebackers, at the touch of a button under Brad White's thumb, and the lights dim for the show. Kentucky's new outside linebackers coach zeroes in, with a green laser pointer, on perhaps the hottest prospect in this year's draft.

Play after play, White keeps coming back to the same point about Josh Allen: the Wildcats' star sack artist is a completely different player than he was in 2017.

The first half dozen plays White chooses in a 15-minute montage of Allen's senior footage have a curious commonality: no pass plays. He will get around to why Allen is one of the elite pass rushers in college football, but he begins with what really has scouts talking.

He begins, of course, with what's changed.

"From a run-game standpoint, he's gotten really strong with his hands. He'd always been a good pass rusher and could always win with speed. Now he can win with the added weight and strength," White said, reversing the film back to replay a snap in which Allen stuffed Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald near the goal line. "He didn't necessarily do that in the past. Now he can control tight ends and tackles. He can control his primary gap, tear off the blocker, then go make a play in another gap."

White was an ideal fit to oversee Allen's senior campaign at UK.

A month after the Indianapolis Colts fired Chuck Pagano in 2017, Stoops plucked White from Pagano's former staff. White was a Colts defensive quality control assistant in 2013, when Robert Mathis led the NFL in sacks with 19.5, and was promoted to outside linebackers coach beginning in 2015, where he oversaw Mathis' final two NFL seasons. Allen couldn't have been happier to work under a new coach who came straight from the NFL and worked with one of the league's elite pass rushers. But rushing the passer isn't where White's demands of Allen began. He outlined a list of things he would have considered weaknesses in Allen's game had he been evaluating him for the Colts:

1) He was too soft in setting the edge against the run.
2) His path to the quarterback needed a better speed-to-power transition.
3) He needed to master an inside move as a pass rusher.

Allen made significant strides in all three areas, turning himself into a player White can hardly recognize against tape from his junior year. In 2017 he finished with seven sacks; last year that number ballooned to 17, No. 2 in the nation behind Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson (17.5).

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, himself a former NFL scout, believes Allen would likely have merited a third-round pick had he entered the 2018 NFL Draft after his junior season.

"The knock on him was that he played with too much finesse. He would jump around blocks and played like a bulk-deficient player," Nagy said. "Now he's a different guy."

From stutterer to speaker, from quitter to star.

From dismissed recruit to future draft prize.

From boy, to man, to father.

Allen will have plenty more to prove when he hits an NFL field in May as a wide-eyed minicamp rookie. But if his physical ability comes up short, his ability to adjust shouldn't be doubted.

After all, outcomes are his specialty.

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