Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen (41) went from a relatively un-recruited high school prospect to one of the top players in college football. He is now expected to be a top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Photo courtesy of UK Athletics
NASHVILLE, April 25 (UPI) -- His mind raced like a thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby when he saw a call coming from the Bluegrass State.
Montclair High School football coach John Fiore was wondering what kind of trouble one of his former players was in, weeks into landing a spot on the University of Kentucky football team.
But it wasn't trouble. It never is for Josh Allen. A group of Wildcats coaches just wanted to thank Fiore for getting the unheralded recruit to Lexington. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound pass-rusher only got the chance to join the team after several players de-committed from the school. He was planning to play at Monmouth.
The once FCS-bound Allen rewarded Kentucky with dominance, becoming the Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best players in the country. Now he projects as a top-5 pick in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He'll hear his name called on Thursday in Nashville. Millions of dollars will follow in the form of a rookie contract.
Allen doesn't care much about which team decides to select him in the draft. He has visited with nearly every franchise with picks in the top half of the first round, other than the Arizona Cardinals, who own the No. 1 overall selection.
Oklahoma's Kyler Murray is expected to be the first player taken on Thursday. Murray is one of several quarterbacks being touted as an option for the top pick. But Allen has a history of being overlooked. He welcomes it.
"I'm just going to be happy if I get drafted," Allen told UPI. "If a team drafts me first, second, third, fourth, fifth ... If a team trades and I drop to like 15."
"I'm going to have to prove people wrong. That's my M.O. I'm here to prove people wrong as much as I can and make a name for myself."
Fiore wouldn't mind if Allen ended up spending most of his Sundays at MetLife Stadium, suiting up for the New York Giants or New York Jets.
The stadium is just a short drive from where Allen played high-school ball. It's also a short distance from Rutgers, one of the many schools that decided to pass on Allen.
Fiore also has sky-high hopes for the former All-State wide receiver turned devastating pass-rusher. He thinks Allen can play for a decade and reach Pro Bowl status. Fiore has earned the right to be trusted when it comes to gauging Allen. He had the foresight to shift him from offense to defense, and started him both ways. He also put in the leg work -- and made the phone calls -- to make sure Allen became a Wildcat.
Allen will be the first Fiore player to reach the NFL gridiron in the coach's 25 years on the sideline.
"Whoever gets him is going to get one of those 10- to 15-year veterans in the NFL," Fiore said. "I wouldn't be shocked, barring major injury, that he excels at a Pro Bowl level."
Friend found, NFL bound
His pigskin exploits jump off the TV screen, but Allen says he wouldn't be the man he is today without overcoming the adversity he faced as a result of a stuttering problem and being bullied.
Allen had an Individualized Education Program for speech therapy throughout elementary school. With that, he was separated from other students his age and only longed to be included in the bulk of his school's population. Now he's primed to be lauded by stadiums filled with 80,000 fans.
"Growing up with it was stressful at times because it was hard to find people to talk to when everybody was making fun of you," said Allen, who also spoke about the experience as part of Hyundai's Rolling with the Rookies campaign.
"I had to find out who was really there for me and who wanted to be friends with me. I kinda get emotional thinking about all the challenges I went through and how it affected me. But I'm glad I went through challenges like that, because it molded me."
During elementary school, Allen eventually found a friend in Jason Simon, who had the same classes as Allen and was also bullied. They are still best friends and speak almost every day.
If he could talk to his younger self or someone in that position today, Allen would tell him not to give up. He also plans to start or contribute to a foundation helping children battle some of the same obstacles that he overcame, after he makes his NFL dream a reality.
"The easiest way to get through something is to give up," Allen said. "You want to strive to be great. You want to strive to fight. You want to strive to be the best you can be. Just don't ever give up. Be different, in a good way. Challenge yourself. That's what I do. I want to be great."
Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen (41) was once the No. 2,121 ranked high school recruit in the country. He landed at Kentucky after other recruits de-committed from the school. Photo courtesy of UK Athletics
The phone call from Lexington only confirmed what Fiore already knew about Allen. But that was before the No. 2,121 ranked high school recruit began wrecking the Southeastern Conference, elevating the Kentucky football program to national relevance.
Allen had athletic lineage in his family. His four older sisters played college hoops, with one going on to the WNBA. He looked the part, but it still took Fiore's eyesight proving perfect in projecting Allen as a star talent. It took a little longer for the defender to shine for the Wildcats.
Allen led the state of New Jersey with 22.5 sacks in his first season as a high school defender, but appeared in just three games during his freshman season at Kentucky. He had 62 tackles and seven sacks during his sophomore campaign, before stepping up in his junior season. Allen followed that seven sack campaign with an eruption of disruption his senior season.
He went off for 17 sacks and forced five fumbles, while making 21.5 tackles for a loss in 2018, hugging a handful of hardware as he wowed NFL scouts.
"Whoever gets him is getting the steal of the draft because he's the whole package," Fiore said of Allen. "He has an unbelievable work ethic and he is going to represent the team well in the community."
Fiore and his son will be special guests of Allen's on Thursday in Nashville.