LEXINGTON, Ky. — Josh Allen, who has the second-most sacks in the SEC, would’ve never ended up at Kentucky had Rutgers listened to John Fiore.
Allen played defensive end for Fiore at Montclair High School in New Jersey, just 20 miles from New York City. Allen was a little-known 2-star prospect, according to 247Sports composite rankings. He was the 47th-ranked player in New Jersey, and not even in-state Rutgers offered him a scholarship.
It wasn’t because the Scarlet Knights didn’t know about him. Fiore said he called the staff probably 50 times.
“You’re making a mistake,” Fiore remembered telling Rutgers. “I don’t care if you don’t see him as a linebacker, the kid can flat out play.”
“No one would listen to us,” Fiore said.
A few factors were working against Allen. He was a traditional defensive end in a 4-3 defense at Montclair. Rutgers wasn’t looking for a 230-pound defensive end, so Fiore pitched him as a linebacker. The idea still didn’t stick.
The sample size also was small. Allen grew up in New Jersey, but he spent his first three years of high school in small-town Alabama where he starred as a wide receiver. Allen was living with his aunt at the time and he didn’t move back to New Jersey until the summer before his senior season.
“People were looking at him as a hybrid tight end/wide receiver-type kid,” Fiore said. “He played very little defense. Well, we had had a lot of luck up here, some success — a few state championships in a row, sent a ton of kids to FBS schools and a lot of them were D-ends, D-linemen, O-linemen. So, we told him he needed to learn how to play D-end and we worked with him at that.”
There was a precedent of success for players like Allen at Montclair. Avery Ellis, who’s tied for the fourth-most sacks in the Canadian Football League, went there, as did former Rutgers captain Julian Pinnix-Odrick and former Ohio State and current Arizona State defensive lineman Darius Slade.
“By far, Josh was the best all-around football player out of all those guys,” Fiore said. “So, it doesn’t shock me at all where he’s at.”
Fiore remembered a scrimmage, before Allen’s senior season, against St. Joseph (Montvale, N.J.) — one of several parochial powerhouses in the area and a consistent top 50 program nationally. Montclair beat St. Joseph, and Allen was everywhere that game — catching touchdowns, sacking the quarterback and making big plays.
“Their head coach, Augie Hoffmann, called up Boston College while we were standing there and told the coaches they needed to offer a scholarship to this kid,” Fiore recalled.
Hoffmann had played for Boston College, and just as Fiore had implored Rutgers to offer Allen, Boston College didn’t listen either.
Allen committed to nearby Monmouth, an FCS school.
“And then we got lucky the weekend before Signing Day,” Fiore said.
A de-commitment left a scholarship spot open at Kentucky, and a local connection gave the Wildcats a heads-up on a player no one was paying attention to. Jim Matsakis coaches at a rival of Montclair’s and had seen Allen. So, Matsakis called his brother, Louie Matsakis, a Kentucky quality control assistant.
That was a Thursday night. On Friday, former Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot sent former Kentucky defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley to see Allen.
“They looked at him,” Fiore said. “[Josh] was on a plane 3 hours later. They had him for the last recruiting weekend, and the rest is history.”
Then came a crash course in Kentucky football — a program Allen knew little about.
“I started learning about Bud [Dupree] and Za’Darius [Smith] and all them,” Allen said. “Randall Cobb, I didn’t know he went here. I had to learn.”
Allen, Kentucky’s third lowest-ranked signee in the 2015 class, has turned into one of the SEC’s best outside linebackers.
After minimal playing time as a freshman, Allen started nine games last season and led the Wildcats with 7 sacks. He’s almost surpassed that sacks number in the first half of his junior campaign. Allen and fellow UK outside linebacker Denzil Ware dubbed themselves the “Blitz Brothers,” and they’re living up to the name. Allen has 41 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
He trails only Auburn’s Jeff Holland for the most sacks in the conference. Not bad for a 2-star prospect from New Jersey.
“I think he’s really taken it to another level,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “He’s been very conscientious, working extremely hard to be very detailed in all aspects of his game.”
“I ain’t gonna lie to you, it’s cool, but like, it’s only midseason,” Allen said. “I wanna wait till the end of the season so it can be official. Second team sounds good, but I’m trying to aim for the first team.”
The most interesting hype about Allen came from WalterFootball.com. The scouting site reported that sources from multiple NFL teams said Allen could end up as a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-5 and 230-pound outside linebacker didn’t have any draft buzz leading up to his junior season, so first-round speculation was a surprise.
Stoops said the report was the sort of “rat poison” Alabama coach Nick Saban was talking about.
“That kind of information is just reckless,” Stoops said last Thursday. “He’s a true junior. Let’s let him play the game and mature and play the right way. That kind of information is very, very, like I said, reckless, and it’s hard for kids not to hear that. Josh and I have had a couple talks since then and he’s focused and ready to play, and doing some very good things.”
Allen doesn’t talk like a guy distracted by what others are saying about him. When asked about what he thought of the report that said he could be drafted in the first round, Allen said he wasn’t surprised.
“More of like relieved,” Allen said. “But it’s not over yet. I’m gonna finish the season like I started it, even harder, so I can get to the hype [they’re] talking about.”
He wants to lead the nation in sacks.
“I’m gonna get it eventually.”
Fiore can’t help but laugh before he tells the story.
It was the middle of August before Allen’s freshman season in Lexington, and Fiore got a call from Eliot.
“As a high school coach, when you send your kid off to an FBS school and they sign the scholarship, the thing you don’t wanna see is your phone blowing up from that school,” Fiore said.
“I’m like ‘Freak. What did Josh do?’ I pick up the phone thinking the worse. D.J.’s like, ‘Coach, I just want to thank you from the University of Kentucky. ‘We love Josh Allen. And it’s not just the football staff, it’s the training staff, it’s the nutrition staff, it’s the guys in the dorm, it’s the registrar, it’s campus police. Everybody who’s ever bumped into or met Josh Allen loves him. We want to thank you.’”
Words like that help explain why Fiore called Allen one of the most humble and down-to-earth people he’s ever met. Fiore was as convinced about Allen’s character as he was about his ability to play big-time college football. So far, he’s been right about both.
That first-round speculation about Allen? It’s what Fiore was telling Rutgers years ago.
“It’s definitely an ‘I told-you-so moment,’” Fiore said. “I tweeted it out and all that when it said projected first round. Cause what’s funny is that’s the terminology I used when I was trying to sell him three years ago to people. I’m like, ‘You’re passing up on a future first-round draft pick.’”
Had Rutgers offered, Allen’s recruitment would’ve likely picked up, Fiore said. That 2-star status didn’t reflect the type of player Allen would become, but it ultimately allowed Kentucky to sign him at the last minute.
“You can’t measure the heart of a man,” Kentucky outside linebackers coach Dean Hood said when asked about underrated prospects.
As Allen put it, “stars don’t mean nothing.”
He proves it with every sack.
“Rutgers, whoever out there that didn’t offer me, thank you,” he said. “That gave me the motivation.”