Well before Alabama’s Jonathan Allen was announced as the Washington Redskins’ first-round pick in the NFL draft, the massive defensive tackle and former standout at Ashburn’s Stone Bridge High was regarded by many fans as one of their own.
With his introduction Saturday at FedEx Field, where hundreds of Redskins faithful gathered to welcome him and Crimson Tide teammate Ryan Anderson, chosen in the second round, Allen’s homecoming was complete.
The Redskins badly needed a win in this year’s draft after firing general manager Scot McCloughan just two years into a roster rebuild, then letting go wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon as well as defenders Chris Baker and Ricky Jean Francois. Hovering over it all: the unresolved future of quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is expected to bolt after the 2017 season if the team fails to broker a long-term contract.
With the Redskins’ Sept. 10 season opener more than four months away, it’s premature to declare the selection of the 6-foot-3, 286-pound Allen a “win,” despite his credentials as recipient of the 2016 Chuck Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski awards as the best defender on the nation’s top defense. But Coach Jay Gruden has penciled him in as a starter. And if Allen can translate his production in the Southeastern Conference to the NFL, he’ll represent a home-grown building block of a long overdue defensive overhaul.
“A good team starts with a good foundation, and a good defense starts with a good defensive line,” notes Ken Harvey, former Redskins linebacker and a four-time Pro Bowl honoree, who studied game film of Allen before the draft and loves the pick. “He’s aggressive. He has good technique. More than anything, he’s a hustler, and he has a lot of attitude.”
In other words, Allen is the prescription for what ails the Redskins’ 28th-ranked defense, which was the NFL’s worst in getting opponents off the field on third down.
In view of his brother, Richard Allen Jr., elder by seven years, Jonathan Allen was made for this moment. Born in Anniston, Ala., reared largely by his brother during his formative years in southern Virginia, Allen was “a physical specimen” by the time he enrolled at Stone Bridge as a freshman, according to Mickey Thompson, his high school football coach.
“He was just 190 pounds, but he could run, he was strong and he had the hands of a skill player, so it took a while to figure out where to line him up,” said Thompson, who trekked to FedEx Field on Saturday, along with several members of his coaching staff, to welcome Allen home.
Richard Allen Jr. spotted his younger brother’s knack for football when he was about 7. He still recalls a drill during Little League practice, when Jonathan wasn’t more than 9 or 10, in which each youngster had to punch a bag attached to a contraption that made it pop back up — a child’s tackling dummy, designed to mimic an unbudgeable lineman.
One by one, the boys hit the bag, only to watch it ricochet back. When Jonathan’s turn came, he walloped it so hard that he broke the bag, spilling its stuffing on the ground. It was pulverized.
As Richard recalls, his brother needed no prodding to stick with the sport that, with Thursday night’s 17th overall selection, will make him a millionaire. He loved football. And he loved working at his game — pushing himself to get stronger, faster, more skilled and more polished.
In fielding questions after his selection and again Saturday, Allen was humble and soft-spoken, characterizing himself as blessed and grateful for the opportunity the Redskins had given him. That’s what he told Gruden, too, when Gruden phoned to inform of the selection.
“No,” Allen replied. “I’m lucky you took me.”
That’s vintage Allen, attests Thompson, his high school coach. But on the field, he’s entirely different.
“He is such a respectful young man,” Thompson said. “But you’d be shocked at his demeanor when he gets on the football field. He’s just intense. You just look in his eyes, and you realize, ‘That’s a player!’ ”
Bo Davis, Allen’s defensive line coach during his first three seasons at Alabama, says Allen was a dream in the classroom — smart, attentive and dutiful — and mature beyond his years when he arrived as a teenager in Tuscaloosa.
“I never worried about his academics because he was always on top of it,” said Davis, now at Texas-San Antonio, in a telephone interview. “He was very dependable. If he tells you he’s going to do something, he does it.”
On the field, he played smart, disciplined football but did so with explosion. In the locker room, he was a spark.
“He could motivate you just by walking in the room,” Davis said. “No matter how the day was going, he would lift everyone’s spirits: ‘Come on, guys! We’re really tired, but we got to push ourselves through this!’ ”
Anderson, the Alabama linebacker whose selection 49th overall followed Allen’s, vouches for the same. “He’s a guy, he can come in the locker room and change the mood of a lot of guys. He has got that ability. He can joke around. But when it’s time to get serious and get on the field, he’s all about his business.”
There’s no doubt Allen could have turned pro after his junior year, eyed as a first-round pick on the heels of Alabama’s 2015 national championship. But he came back to help defend the title and work on what he viewed as a weakness in his game: run defense.
As Alabama marched toward yet another national title game last season, Coach Nick Saban reflected on that decision — how it helped both the team and Allen, whom he initially recruited as a 250-pound outside linebacker.
“The guy has developed each and every year into being a better and better and better player,” Saban said, hailing Allen as an outstanding player and even better person and leader. “I think 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 rigors of an Alabama season are exhausting, Allen acknowledged Saturday. But less than four months after his last college game, all he wants to do is get back to work at the sport he has loved for so long. To start lifting with his new teammates. To start running. To start earning his place all over again in a sport that is now his job.