Marcus Allen, with the same boyish smile and messy curly hair that endeared him to Penn State fans, walked off the Saint Vincent College practice field Tuesday and took a step back in time.
The date? Feb. 1, 2009. The occasion? Super Bowl XLIII.
Allen — who lived in Maryland but grew up in Pittsburgh — was at his cousin’s house in the 412 to celebrate Ben Roethlisberger’s last-minute touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes, the difference in the Steelers’ 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
“We go out on the strip and go nuts with everybody,” Allen told the CDT. “Everyone’s just out there in the snow. That’s just how it was. It was a tradition type of thing. Pittsburgh is just home of the black and gold. I still carry that.”
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Nine years later, Allen is going up against Roethlisberger on a weekly basis. He’s coached by Mike Tomlin, who raised the Lombardi Trophy as Allen and his cousins frolicked in the snow. He’s playing for his childhood team, the only franchise he ever loved.
Allen — a record-setting, four-year starting safety at Penn State — could not have landed in a better situation.
In the weeks leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, there are always questions of, “Where does this player fit?” From a football standpoint, Allen could have jelled in Houston, Green Bay or New York. But from the jump, all signs pointed to Pittsburgh. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert knew Allen and his family well, and the team needed safety help. Most mock drafts — for what they’re worth — had Allen destined for the Steel City. It was just a matter of when he’d be picked.
It might have been later than some expected, but on April 28 — on the third and final day — Allen was selected by Pittsburgh in the fifth round with the No. 148 overall pick. The emotional, fun-loving safety cried tears of joy that Sunday afternoon. The first thing he did on social media was post an old photo of himself as a toddler next to his grandmother with the caption, “I’m coming home Grandma.”
“I was excited,” Allen said, biting his lower lip with a half-smile. “It was my dream team, the team I always wanted to be with.”
And now that he’s finally wearing the black and gold as a player, not a fan, Allen is out to prove himself.
The safety — whose 321 career tackles with the Nittany Lions ranks fifth on the program’s all-time list — reportedly nursed a hamstring injury during June’s organized team activities. But on Tuesday, Allen looked to be in old form, bouncing around the turf, itching to get on the field.
Playing time doesn’t come easy for a fifth-round pick, though. Veteran safety Morgan Burnett and third-year starter Sean Davis manned the first team Tuesday, while 2018 first-round pick Terrell Edmunds and Nat Berhe ran with the second team. Third-team work was split between Allen, former Penn State teammate Malik Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.
Two days before the team’s first preseason game, the Steelers weren’t wearing pads, taking Allen’s hard-hitting nature out of play. But in his limited snaps, the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder — wearing No. 27 now — was all over the place. Allen pressured rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph in the pocket early and forced the scrambling Oklahoma State gunslinger out of bounds three plays later.
The most intriguing part of Allen’s training camp has been his work in Pittsburgh’s sub packages. Allen has been featured in the Steelers’ “dollar” looks, which employ seven defensive backs and is used in obvious passing downs (third-and-long, etc.). In that package, according to a report last week by TribLive, Allen played closer to the line of scrimmage as a “quasi-linebacker.”
After Tuesday’s practice, Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton called the rookie “another speed guy that can play down low in the box.” Allen — “a punishing, downhill banger with good size and the attitude of a linebacker in run support,” according to his NFL.com draft profile — was made for this specialized “dollar” role. And it’s one the hard-hitting former Nittany Lion is willing to embrace.
“If they want me to play d-end, I’ll play d-end. If they want me to play snapper, I’ll play snapper,” Allen said. “I’ve been working at safety, at dollar, everything. ... I’m comfortable with wherever they want to play me.”
Ultimately, Allen trusts Tomlin. He trusts former Penn State assistant and current Steelers defensive backs coach Tom Bradley. He trusts Pittsburgh, and he wants to deliver for the franchise that invested in his future.
If it wasn’t already in Happy Valley, football is Allen’s job now. He’s expected to handle himself like a professional — in his own words, “like a grown man.” That means being a little more serious.
But at the same time, Allen is staying true to himself. Golden said he “hasn’t changed one bit” and that “vibrant personality” is still there. It’s a part of what got him here. It’s a reason why Allen is likely the most popular fifth-round pick Latrobe has ever seen.
Before every practice, the smiling safety is greeted by dozens of black-and-gold clad Penn State fans asking for autographs. He tries to get to everyone, but admitted that he can’t. “It’s so hard,” he said. “But I try my best to get as many people as I can, all the Penn State fans. Because their loyalty is definitely strong. It means something for real.”
In four years at Penn State — from starting as a true freshman at Ohio State to blocking the Buckeyes’ kick that helped lead the Nittany Lions to a 2016 Big Ten Championship — Allen captivated the Penn State faithful.
And he’s hoping to do the same in Pittsburgh. That starts Thursday night in Philadelphia — Allen’s first game in the black and gold.
“I just try to be physical and be myself. Be the person who I am,” Allen said. “They drafted me for a reason. ... I’m just ready to go out there and show what I can do.”