BOGACZYK: Allen Hopes to Corner Leadership for Herd
The Word on the Herd-April 7, 2016
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – When Rodney Allen first appeared briefly in a Marshall football practice in the summer of 2013, he wore No. 87 as a wide receiver. Once the Texan switched to the defensive secondary, he was No. 34. Last season, the backup cornerback took No. 11.
Now, in a different fashion, the redshirt junior has to be No. 1.
Marshall’s lone player from the Lone Star State will be the Herd veteran at cornerback in 2016, after Corey Tindal left behind a year of eligibility and graduated and declared for the NFL Draft, and Keith Baxter completed his career with his degree.
“It does feel kind of strange being a leader, but I know I’ve got to take the challenge and just step up and be a great player now,” Allen said after a recent spring practice session.
Allen, from Dallas, is switching sides for the Herd, moving from boundary to field cornerback, patrolled so well by Darryl “Swagg” Roberts for three seasons and then Tindal in 2015. Allen emerged last season in tandem with Baxter at boundary, playing 618 defensive snaps in the Herd’s 10-3 season.
“There is no doubt that Rodney Allen is a talented guy,” Herd Coach Doc Holliday said before camp began. “He has been playing corner for two years and he is finally starting to feel comfortable there, and Chuck (Heater, defensive coordinator and secondary coach) has done a great job of coaching him, and he has got to be the guy now.
“With losing Corey and Bax, our defense is built from the outside in and the way that we play, we have got to be able to match up at the corner position to be able to get the extra head in the box and do what we do defensively. For the last three years with Swagg and Corey and some of those guys, we have been able to do that.”
This spring, Allen is joined at corner by junior Antavis “Skip” Rowe, who is limited this spring after surgery for a leg fracture this winter, and true freshman and early enrollee Chris Jackson. Sophomore TJ Griffin (39 snaps in 2015) and redshirt juniors Michael Johnson and D’Andre “Chocolate” Wilson don’t have much experience. Redshirt freshman Deiondre Coleman is making his debut.
“Allen is the one guy who has played; we’ve got a little bit of videotape on him,” Heater said. “He played real reps for us and the next step is for him to be the most-trusted guy.
“The corner on that short side of the field – Swagg before and Corey Tindal last year – that’s where it kind of starts for us. He’s the guy there having to make most of his plays for us. That’s the guy we really need to get things going right away.”
Allen got a few practices at the start of August 2013 camp at wideout before he had to sit two semesters to retain eligibility. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, he was moved to the secondary in camp. That season, Allen saw only 75 defensive snaps while playing primarily on special teams units.
“He struggled with just the fundamental techniques (at corner),” Heater said. “He was a wide receiver and we got him late and never really had a chance to coach him, but he’s made strides in each period of the year. He made strides during winter a year ago, then in the spring and the fall, but then he had a long way to go because he’d just never done it before and it wasn’t natural for him.
“Rodney has made progress just in terms of fundamentally, the technique of playing the position. You’d like to think that with this spring and summer and then into the fall, he’d continue to improve and if he does, it will get to his skill set, which is certainly good enough to play. It’s just other stuff he’s got to fix.”
Allen, 22, hasn’t been fazed by his challenges at Marshall.
When he reported, he was listed on the roster at 5-foot-10, 153 pounds – “but they gave me two more to 155,” he said, smiling. Now, he’s 5-11, 183 after recording 30 tackles with three interceptions, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery in 2015.
One of those breakups was the biggest defensive play for the Herd in its St. Petersburg Bowl victory last December.
With the Herd in front 13-7 at Tropicana Field in the final minute of the third quarter, Connecticut had driven from its own 25 to the Marshall 35. It was third-and-10, and the Herd knew what was coming – a Byron Shirreffs’ pass.
“They called a timeout and we came over (by the sideline),” Allen said. “Coach Heater said, ‘It’s all or nothing.’ So, everybody kind looked at me like, ‘They’re coming at you.’ And I said, ‘I know.’ And I knew right then and there I had to make my play. It was up to me to step up.
“We were in a deep-third called Fire Zone. The corner (Tindal) has a third, the safety (Taj Letman) has a third and the other corner has a third (Allen). And I was playing my zone and there was only one receiver there (UConn’s Noel Thomas), so I just played him.
“It was high, down about the 5-yard line. It was a pickable ball, but my mind was to just get the ball on the ground. Do not let the dude catch the ball. That was the only thing that came into my head.”
Allen made the play, and UConn had to settle for a 52-yard field goal, as Marshall kept a narrow lead. Some among the Herd saw Allen’s play as something of a statement by a guy who was ready to take over a crucial position this season.
“No, I didn’t look at it like that, not really,” Allen said. “It was just me coming along, making progress, wanting to be a great player, just getting seasoning every play I’m out there. At first, I was just getting by.
“Now, I know I’ve got to come out, go hard every day, show what I can do because I’ve got others looking up to me. There are freshmen coming in thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve got a new captain now.’ And that’s what I’ve got to be on this team.
“I like being a leader because everybody has to look up to me, and it used to be I was the one looking up to others – like Swagg. D.J. Hunter, even though he was a linebacker, he was always in my corner, telling me, do this, do that. Now, it’s my job to help others.”
Allen, who also played basketball and ran track and field in addition to starring in football at Lincoln High School in Dallas, said his experience at wideout aided him early – and still does – after his move to cornerback.
“It helped me a lot because after playing receiver, I know most of the routes they’re running,” he said. “I just don’t know when they’re going to run it, but I know how they’re going to run it. I learned a lot from the older guys like Swagg.
“The biggest things I learned was to watch a lot of film and pay attention to who I’m going against every day. Be patient, don’t always want something, let it come. Just be patient. Don’t always want, want, want. Be ready to receive. And take coaching. That’s big.
“It’s pretty hard being consistent at corner because our offense is pretty good, so you have to have the mindset to try and dominate every play. And our offense is going to go hard every play, so I have to go hard every play even though I might be tired. Doesn’t matter. I’ve still got to go hard.”
Allen is learning to play with the cornerback’s “short-term memory” mindset that Roberts so often talked about at Marshall before he reached the NFL with New England. If you are beaten on a play, it’s history. You need amnesia. There’s always a next play.
Allen is not the most vocal guy, and Heater said that part remains a work in progress for his most experienced corner, too. Then, the 40-year veteran of college coaching said Allen’s play could speak for itself.
“It’s however you define leadership,” Heater said. “To me, leadership is a guy who comes to work every day and everyone respects him because of how he goes about his business. He’s that guy. If it means a lot of talking, I’m not sure Rodney will necessarily be that guy, but as far as a mature kid, a guy who takes care of his business in the classroom, off the field, comes to work every day and is ready to go to work, that’s him.
“To me that’s what is good in a guy in your room, to have an older player that is wired that way, and they can provide a lot of good examples. We’ve had a lot of those guys in the past, Swagg, Pac (Monterius Lovett), Tindal, Letman … really good guys doing those things for us.
“So, he’s got that benefit, and Rodney exemplifies that with the young players we have and the ones we’ll have coming in, too.”