Why Nick Saban loves Jonathan Allen so much

Jonathan Allen sacks Trevor KnightMarvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban doesn't typically gush about individual players. Likewise, he doesn't go through the usual song and dance of giving out game balls. Singling out anyone like that, he explained, would go against the objective of focusing on playing together and everyone doing his job.

Besides, picking out a star on Alabama's roster is nearly impossible. On defense alone, it's a constellation of future pros who comprise the nation's No. 1 scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and third-down defense. As a unit, it hasn't allowed a touchdown in more than a month, and quarterbacks have the lowest QBR against it in the country.

But as a matter of human nature, someone has to be the best. And he just so happens to be a 6-foot-3, 294-pound senior defensive end with seven sacks, a team-high 13 quarterback hurries and, for an added bonus, a pair of touchdowns. He's a finalist for the Nagurski, Bednarik and Hendricks awards, and if the Heisman Trophy wasn't slanted toward offensive skill players, he'd be on everyone's top list of nominees.

He's Jonathan Allen, and if you don't think he's Heisman-worthy, just ask his head coach.

That's right, the ultra-team-focused Saban has bent the rules to accommodate for Allen. Last month, after he sacked Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight in Superman-esque fashion and scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery, Saban openly vied for him to be considered for the Heisman, lamenting the fact that the award overlooks linemen. Saban called Allen a "fabulous" player and a "great candidate."

In a way, Allen is the perfect player to make his typically stoic head coach speak up. Over the course of the last four years, he's become the personification of Saban's so-called Process. He came in with all the hype of a big-time recruit and none of the self-awareness or ego. Rather, he contributed in a part-time role as a freshman and grew from there, spending time in the weight room and learning new positions.

Allen could have turned pro after last season, but he stayed. He could have doubled his team-high 12 sacks easily, he thought. A financial-planning and consumer-affairs major, he estimated a $10 million difference between the second-to-third-round grade he received and the first-round spot he envisioned. It was a "business decision," he said, returning to up his stock and finish his degree. Now it's hard to find a flaw in his game, whether it's playing inside and stuffing the run or moving outside to rush the passer.

"Jonathan Allen is a fantastic player for us, and even a better person and leader," Saban said. "Sometimes a lot of players lose sight of how football is a developmental game, how they improve, how they can improve their value by continuing to grow and develop as players in college. Jonathan Allen is a great example of that."


The son of a retired sergeant and the younger brother of an Army member stationed in Colorado, it's no wonder Allen was drawn to the structure of Alabama. Discipline and attention to detail were ingrained in him from a young age, and in Saban he saw a continuation of that upbringing. While some young players buck against the strictness of the program, Allen said he loves it. After four years together, he has to stop and shake his head when he catches himself speaking like his head coach, parroting the tenets of the Process.

"Like Coach Saban says, 'If you want to have success, there's a formula,'" Allen said. "There are very few places that are like that. If you want to be successful, this is exactly what you have to do to get there."

But getting there wasn't easy. Allen arrived at Alabama a 250-pound athlete hoping to play outside linebacker before transforming into the defensive lineman he is today. And before that, he was a sophomore in a new high school, 170 pounds soaking wet, with no clue of how to get into a three-point stance.

Allen was born in Anniston, Alabama, and lived in Seattle, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pittsburgh and Maryland before landing at Stone Bridge High in Virginia. There, under coach Mickey Thompson, Allen had dreams of scoring touchdowns on offense. Only he had bricks for hands. During one of his first practices, Thompson remembers Allen turning to catch the football and whiffing completely, letting the ball sail between his hands before drilling him in the face mask.

"You know, this might not be the position for him," Thompson thought at the time.

"He was good, but he wasn't great like he is now. He would have had to wait his turn for a while if he had played that position. So we started trying him in a three-point stance and trying to get him on the edge a little bit ... and it grew from there."

Allen was undersized, but he more than made up for it with his speed. Coaches tried to teach him which gap was which, but it didn't work because even when he was out of position, he'd spin out and make the tackle anyway. In his first couple of games, Thompson remembered Allen having seven or eight sacks. By the time his sophomore season ended, he had roughly 25.

"It became like folklore," Thompson said. "What are we going to do with this guy? How are we going to block him? Everybody in their heads said, 'We're going to run away from him.' But that was a mistake because he was going to run you down.

"You can't have somebody totally take over a game on defensive line. That's unheard of. And that happened a lot."

Before long, colleges began taking notice. Allen felt spurned by nearby Virginia Tech, which he said initially viewed him as undersized, but not everyone saw it that way. Then-Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was a fixture at Stone Bridge, spending hours with Allen to develop a relationship. But then, Thompson said, "Alabama rolled in, and it was pretty much over."

"Saban can be intimidating to some people," Thompson explained. "It's no-nonsense. To some people who are more off-the-wall or fun-loving, it's a little intimidating. For him, I think he likes it. He's serious about his craft, and he wants someone who is serious about it."

Just like his choice to return for his senior season, Allen looked at signing with Alabama as a business decision. He had dreams of playing in the NFL, and Saban had the right formula, he said.


Allen may look the part of the prototypical Saban robot, with the precise blend of size, speed and discipline, but beneath that helmet lies a human being. When a reporter said after Alabama's 38-0 beatdown of Michigan State last season that teams simply aren't supposed to win by such large margins, Allen snapped back coldly, "Alabama does." Someone added music to the video clip, and it became a viral hit.

It was a small but revealing moment. It was really the first glimpse of the confident side of his personality.

But the hybrid defensive end/tackle is also a self-described "geek" who loves nothing more than to play video games like "Battlefield" and "NBA 2K." He built his own computer over the summer, swapping out parts to make it run at higher speeds. He chose his major, he said, because he heard so many stories of athletes going broke.

Thompson, who tries to keep in touch with Allen every few weeks, is in awe of his former player. He said that people don't understand what kind of person Allen is away from the field, calling him "gentle" and "one of the highest-character people I've ever coached."

On the field is a different story, though. There, Thompson said, he sees a "lunatic" with a rage that "doesn't fit."

"You have to be a tough guy," Allen said. "You have to be a dog, as we say around here, to go through what we go through. You have to have that nasty, mean edge about you."

When his father and brother came to Alabama last Saturday to celebrate Senior Day, Allen blocked out all emotion, refusing to think about it being the final home game of his career. Instead, he said he was focused and "wanted to kill Auburn." He wound up with two tackles for loss and helped the defense go the entire month of November without allowing a touchdown.

ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. currently ranks Allen as the fourth-best draft-eligible prospect. An SEC West assistant coach described him as a complete player who is "disruptive" and has "the ability to create momentum plays." On a defense that's become known for nonoffensive touchdowns, it's the nearly 300-pound lineman that ties for the team lead with two scores.

"I feel like we're the best," Allen said, "but we have to go out there and prove it every week. We have the mentality we have to go out there and suffocate and dominate the offense."

Florida coach Jim McElwain joked that there have been "only a couple of times where I've become violently ill watching them" on film this week.

Last year, Allen had a sack during Alabama's 29-15 win over Florida in the SEC Championship Game. This time around, there's no telling what he'll do.

With so much left of the season, Allen said he can't let thoughts of his legacy creep into his mindset yet.

"Personally, we really don't focus on that, to be honest with you," he explained. "I know it sounds a little boring. We just try to go with the mindset of control what we can control."

Boring, huh?

Sound familiar?

If you listen closely, you can almost hear Saban whispering the words in his ear.

"As opposed to looking at what I do right," Allen said, "I kind of focus at what I do wrong."

Whatever his faults are is anyone's guess.

But one thing is certain: He's learned well.