Shortly after noon Friday, as the moments draw closer to Stone Bridge’s matchup with Yorktown in the Virginia AAA Northern Region Division 5 championship, Jonathan Allen will drift into his zone — a place where few are welcome and only one thing matters.
“He’s a different bird on game day,” Stone Bridge defensive coordinator Derek Barlow said. “You almost can’t talk to him because he’s just boiling and boiling for the game.”
Some say Allen’s eyes get narrow, even watery, as he stews, awaiting the action on the gridiron. The look alone is enough to make his Bulldogs teammates keep a distance from their star defensive lineman.
“He’s got this Hulk persona where he can just go off,” fellow Stone Bridge defensive lineman and close friend Jesse Mizell said. “We try to get through to him, but when he’s in that mind-set, there’s no stopping him. You don’t want to be in his path.”
Come kickoff, neither do Stone Bridge’s opponents. Coaches have heard offensive linemen cry for help when they see the 6-foot-3, 263-pound Allen lining up across from them, leading quarterbacks to quickly change plays at the line away from Allen.
More often than not, those adjustments prove futile. Prior to this season, Allen racked up 195 tackles and 33 sacks in his two-year varsity career. This fall, despite enduring constant double teams and a nagging shoulder injury, the two-time All-Met and Alabama recruit has 72 tackles and seven sacks.
“He’s so relentless and he plays with such a rage that it’s special,” Bulldogs Coach Mickey Thompson said. “Nobody in their right mind is going to hold the football in their passing game when you have Jonathan Allen on the other side of the ball.”
It’s a lesson that most coaches learned the hard way during Allen’s sophomore campaign, when he relied on sheer speed and agility to tally a school-record 20 sacks.
“I didn’t really know much technique back then, so I had to rely mostly on raw skill,” said Allen, pegged initially by coaches at second-ranked Stone Bridge (12-0) as a wide receiver or defensive back. “Over time, though, I began to add things, like a spin or swim move.”
As Allen’s knowledge has progressed, so have the schemes devised to stop him. Most coaches resort to double teams or quick option plays to keep him off balance, but even then, Allen usually finds a way to make his presence felt.
“Sometimes he’d be at defensive end and the offense would run a sweep toss away from him and he’d run the kid down,” Chantilly Coach Mike Lalli said. “And even if a run went for a positive gain and the kid was 10 yards away, he would run them down and eliminate the big play. That’s the kind of motor he has.”
“You always have to know where he is on the field. He’s so fast off the ball and hard to keep up with,” said Langley offensive lineman Jack Howerton, who has faced Allen five times over three seasons. “We doubled him or threw another block to keep him off-balance when we could, but he’s just a really good pass rusher.”
In Stone Bridge’s Week 4 matchup against rival Broad Run, the Spartans coaches held up cards to call plays away from Allen, who finished with three and a half tackles. But in Mizell’s eyes, that was Allen’s best game of the season.
“I saw him mature where, even with all the double and triple teams, he kept telling the coaches it doesn’t matter,” Mizell recalled. “He allowed the front seven to make a lot of plays on defense and he was excited at every one, even though he only had a few tackles.”
It was at that point that Mizell and others knew their “Hulk” had learned to embrace his inner Bruce Banner — that Allen’s on-field rage could be funneled into selfless play and effective leadership.
“There’s nothing wrong with playing emotional, as long as it’s channeled in the right way, and I think Jonathan has learned to do that for the good of the team,” said Allen’s father, Richard. “He’s kind of like Ray Lewis in that they both play mad in a way that says ‘I can’t believe they are trying to score on me.’ ”
Fueled by their defensive leader, the Bulldogs have surrendered just under 10 points per contest. Friday they face a potent Patriots’ offense that has scored 35 points or more in 10 of 12 games and features the vaunted two-headed rushing attack of M.J. Stewart and Arturo Brown. With a win, Stone Bridge would capture its sixth state tournament berth in eight seasons and move one step closer to what Allen sees as the purpose behind his passion — a state title run.
“It’s all about determination and athletic ability with me. I feel like if you have enough confidence and work hard, success is inevitable,” Allen said. “You never know which game is going to be your last and I love competing, so I just give everything I have.”