Marcus Allen found himself on the wrong end of coaches’ lectures and his penchant for hitting everything full speed at practice got the true freshman safety in hot water with some of his older teammates this summer.
Now, that same aggressive attitude coupled with Allen’s size and quick learning of Penn State’s defensive schemes has him in the starting lineup for the Nittany Lions. He’s expected to make his second career start when Penn State (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) plays Maryland (5-3, 2-2) on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
“Marcus, he can come down and lay hits on everybody,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “He likes to hit everybody. He used to get in the trouble in the summer time, guys were trying to stay up off the ground, he would be going 100 percent at all times. He’s always running off a motor.”
Allen, who made his debut in Ireland on special teams, became the third true freshman to start a game this season and is one of eight to play for Penn State. His inclusion on the defensive side of the ball was necessitated by a season-ending injury to starter Ryan Keiser.
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And Allen didn’t disappoint. He nearly intercepted two deep J.T. Barrett passes on one third-quarter drive and was physical in run support.
Allen finished with 11 tackles, behind only linebackers Mike Hull and Brandon Bell. Allen hasn’t been made available to reporters as true freshman are off limits to the media, but he showed fans a glimpse of his intense on-field persona when he high stepped and flexed his way out of a pile after a particularly hard hit at the line of scrimmage in the second half against the Buckeyes.
In training camp, Allen was identified as one of a handful of true freshman who head coach James Franklin thought could play sooner than others. At 6-foot-2, 196 pounds, Allen already had the size. He needed to integrate himself in defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s schemes.
“Marcus was a guy that I think came in with the mentality that he’s going to play,” Franklin said. “Physically he’s a big, strong kid. And he picked the stuff up pretty quickly. So that stood out to you early on, the combination of those traits, not just one thing. There’s some guys that stood out running around but once the playbook hit them, it slowed down. He was a guy that could handle all three phases.”
But Allen still had to learn how to practice and to save his physicality for opposing teams.
“I think that’s typical for a lot of young guys, they don’t understand the tempos,” Franklin said. “In high school, a lot of times you just go out and practice. Here you have tag-off tempo, you have thud tempo, you have live tempo. And we very rarely go to the ground and those young guys come and they want to show everybody how good they are and that’s not really what we’re looking for because we’re trying to limit some of the injuries.”
Allen will continue playing with veteran Adrian Amos and corners Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas, Keiser’s absence will provide an opportunity for another true freshman to get into the lineup eventually. Franklin said Troy Apke will play on special teams against the Terrapins.
Apke, who was recruited as a wide receiver from Mount Lebanon, switched to safety over the summer. The coaching staff intended to redshirt Apke but decided against it when Keiser went down. Franklin met with Apke to make sure he was okay with burning his redshirt despite being inactive in the first seven games.
Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who coached at Gateway High School near Pittsburgh, was quite familiar with Apke despite having not coached against him.
“Troy is an extremely athletic kid, very explosive, fast, he has very good size,” Smith said. “He’s also a bright kid. So he’s going to bring added athleticism to us. He’s working really hard in practice to get caught up on the special teams assignments and the defensive assignments.”
Of the nine true freshmen who will have played after this weekend’s game, four are defensive backs. Grant Haley and Christian Campbell have split time at cornerback. Haley has been the team’s primary return man on kickoffs.
Hamilton called Allen a “young Amos.”
Amos started his first game as a true freshman and will make his 33rd start against the Terps.
Franklin and the rest of the staff are hoping the early starts for their youngest players will be a good base for them to enjoy long, effective careers like Amos has. “We’re really excited that the group of four freshman that we have here and their potential moving forward,” Smith said.