Marcus Allen started from scratch four years ago.
He arrived at the Capital Sportsplex in Maryland for his first workout with PrimeXample Elite Skills Academy, ready to learn how to play defensive back. Allen told coach Roman Morris that he wanted to play Division I football that summer day, but he was just a rising high school sophomore who was preparing for his first season of varsity football. He had a growth spurt after his freshman year — shooting up from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-1 — and he was moving from linebacker to safety at Dr. Henry A. Wise, Jr. High School that fall.
So Allen started working in the beginner’s group with PrimeXample, focused on the basics of playing defensive back.
“I was straight raw,” Allen said. “I didn’t know anything.”
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“Marcus was just awful,” Morris said. “Awful.”
Allen went through the drills with urgency, but he struggled. He didn’t have the ability to open up his hips smoothly, his footwork needed polishing and his confidence was lacking. At the time, despite his Division I aspirations, Morris said Allen didn’t believe he’d actually achieve that goal.
Four years later, Allen spent part of his offseason with PrimeXample, working to continue to sharpen his skills heading into his sophomore year at Penn State. Allen was coming off a standout freshman campaign in which he started seven games, and Morris saw the potential in the 6-foot-2 safety for a breakout season. Allen exuded confidence on the field and served as a role model for the program’s younger athletes.
“When he comes home in the summertime and he’s working,” Morris said, “these younger kids see Marcus and they say they want to be that.”
Allen introduced himself to Penn State fans and the college football world when he made 11 tackles in his first career start in a double overtime loss to Ohio State last season. He and the Nittany Lions will take on the No. 1 Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Allen is tied for fourth on the team with 30 tackles despite missing one game due to injury this year.
Allen is the “quarterback” of the Penn State defense from his safety position.
It’s a spot he adopted in high school after playing linebacker growing up.
The switch was made after his high school coach, DaLawn Parrish, watched him play in a JV 7-on-7 game the summer before his sophomore year. Parrish noticed how much he grew and felt it made more sense for Allen to be a big safety than a small linebacker. Parrish told Allen about the plan for the position change and his promotion to varsity after the game.
“He was a little apprehensive about knowing that he was quite ready,” Parrish said. “When it comes to Marcus, he needs confirmation, he needs to know that he’s ready.”
Morris saw the same issue when he worked with Allen.
Allen took “baby steps” with each workout.
It started with one of PrimeXample’s staple drills, backpedaling. It’s crucial to defensive-back play to be smooth in and out of breaks, to be able to redirect to make plays.
“If you don’t stop and start as precise, violent and urgent as you can, think about the throws today, when quarterbacks throw the ball you can be right there and it still can be a catch,” Morris said. “So we want to get your redirecting violent, urgent, stop that body and get it going in another direction.”
Allen struggled with it at first.
“It was just awkward,” Allen said. “I used to run backwards instead of like really backpedal.”
But he remained dedicated to getting better, going through the drills hard each week to develop those skills.
Morris said conversations with Allen during his sophomore year revealed his lack of confidence.
He’d ask the coach why he wasn’t getting any scholarship offers. And when Morris responded that they would come, he would express his doubt. He started with PrimeXample with his sights on playing big-time college football, but he didn’t believe it was possible.
“I don’t think it will happen,” Morris remembers Allen saying. “I’m not good enough.”
About six months after he started working with PrimeXample, right after his sophomore season, the offers started to roll in.
Mike Viti took notice when he heard one of the PrimeXample veterans was heading to Penn State after a winter workout.
Viti, a Pennsylvania native, grew up a Penn State fan.
That fall, he watched Allen’s first start for the Nittany Lions against Ohio State. Allen excelled in place of injured starter Ryan Keiser that night and finished the season tied for third on the team with 58 tackles.
Viti, a senior safety for Cedar Cliff who is committed to Maryland, said he considers Allen a role model.
“He always brings energy,” Viti said of Allen’s approach at PrimeXample workouts. “Not only does he do it good, but he always does it with swagger. And he gets pumped up when he does good things and he gets everything going. He’s very passionate.”
Viti doesn’t know Allen personally, but he’s watched him closely along with Maryland defensive back Sean Davis and Iowa defensive back Miles Taylor at workouts.
Allen spent his early days at PrimeXample learning from former Penn State defensive back Stephon Morris, among others.
When he arrived at Penn State, he looked up to Keiser.
Allen emulated the former safety, staying behind him at walkthroughs and listening to everything he said. He credits Keiser for instilling in him the importance of being vocal and knowing the defense inside and out.
Allen went to teammates’ hotel rooms last season and recalls asking Grant Haley, Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos to test him on the game plan. He would watch extra film with defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and Keiser.
“Ever since the time he came in, Marcus, he just wanted to learn,” Keiser said. “You could tell there was something about him and that he was going to be great because of his work ethic.”
Going into this season, Allen said he knew the defense.
“If I see a formation, just boom, right there, without hesitation I just know it,” Allen said, “and I know it for a fact like I know my ABCs.”
And after his standout freshman season, when Allen returned to work out with PrimeXample, Roman Morris remembered when the Penn State safety was just soaking in all he could from the veterans.
Now, he was among the leaders mentoring the younger players.
“To see them be all eyes and ears when Marcus is talking is a pretty cool thing,” Morris said.
Allen looked like a polished defensive back this past offseason.
“He has the ability to move like a 5-10 cornerback, I’m telling you,” Morris said. “I’m not trying to make him nothing that he isn’t. I’m not giving him nothing he hasn’t earned. This spring and summer, Marcus was moving like one of our 5-10 corners.”
But he wasn’t satisfied.
He went through drills over and over, exploding in and out of his breaks. If he didn’t do it fast enough, he knew it without being told, pounding his fist into the ground before going again. Still, he looked in control and effortless on the field, improving on the consistent level he reached as a junior in high school after his awkward start.
“They say to be like a violinist, like a smooth jazz player,” Viti said, illustrating the goal to be fluid with every movement.
Allen turned himself into a skilled defensive back with his work ethic.
And he has an ideal athletic build to play the position, standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing 209 pounds.
“Physically, I think he’s the prototype free safety,” Keiser said.
And then there’s that passion.
It starts before games, like last week as he danced on the field before Penn State’s game against Indiana.
“I always love watching Marcus dance,” Keiser said. “He’s got some great dance moves, you know he’s always doing that out there on the field.”
And it’s visible throughout each game as he flies around the field, making tackles and firing fist pumps as a standout safety at the Division I level.
“I think right now,” Morris said, “he’s painting a pretty good Picasso painting.”