If I’m doing my math right, the season opener against Arkansas State will be Jeff Allen’s 35th consecutive start at offensive tackle. From wide eyed true freshman starting on the road at Penn State to 2nd Team All Big Ten left tackle as a junior, it’s been fun to watch him develop and grow. I sat down with Jeff to discuss his final go-around in an Illini uniform. I think he can be the best offensive tackle in the Big Ten. So does he.
Take me back to September 27th, 2008. True freshman, 100,000 fans, at Penn State, national TV… tell me what that was like.
That was a long time ago, first off. It was the experience of a lifetime for me. True freshman, my first start, no knowing what to expect – I think that was a good thing. Because I went in there with no fear at all. I went in there and I just played.
Was that the first road game of the year? What was it like getting your first start on the road?
We were in St. Louis in the dome, and that was a nice experience, but it’s a totally different thing at Penn State. White out, a night game, a lot of fans screaming and a lot of crazy stuff. You have a lot of nervousness, but after the first series – just the first few plays – I was fine. I settled in and realized I could play.
So then what was it like last year going back to Happy Valley?
It’s the same thing. The fans are crazy – maybe it’s a different atmosphere because that was a morning game, and it wasn’t a White Out – but they still have great fans there. It was an experience. You like to go there. And we beat them, so it was nice to keep them quiet.
What would you say is your best memory in your three years here?
My freshman year we beat Iowa. We just grinded it out. That was the most physical game I’ve been in since I’ve been here. I literally couldn’t walk after that game. But it was the best pain I ever felt because we pulled out the victory.
What would you say is your worst memory?
I’ve got a couple of them. From the same season, losing to Western Michigan my freshman year. And then at the end of the season, to go to a bowl game, we lost to Northwestern. That was pretty tough. Especially being my home town and me having to go home afterward. I didn’t want to leave the house. It was pretty tough.
So what was last year like, finishing the season by going to a bowl game?
It was great. I think we have something going around here. We had the bowl game, and with the bowl game comes extra practices. So we came into the spring knowing what to expect, having the same offense. We’re just so much further ahead than last year. It’s like day and night. We’re just looking forward to this summer and getting better.
This is the first season you’ve gone into with the same offense, isn’t it?
It is. It’s my first time. That’s a big advantage for me and the rest of the team. Us knowing the offense and having the same calls and terminology – you’re just able to play faster. You can process things much quicker.
And you and Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic are used to playing next to each other.
Yes. That’s a plus. We have a lot of experience. It’s actually four of us – Jack (Cornell) played a lot last year. He rotated in a lot. He actually started a few games. And he’s a senior with me, so the two of us have to step up and be great leaders. The line goes as we go.
Talk a little bit if you will about your friendship with Graham Pocic.
The first time I met Graham was back in high school – our senior years. We used to go to Maine South High School every Sunday just to work on our technique. We did one-on-ones with different high school kids in the area. That’s the first time we met, and when I committed here – I committed before Graham – I used to talk to him, like “come on man, we can do this thing together”. Because initially I was a guard, so I told him “I can be right next to you for all the years we’ll be there”. He ended up coming here, and we came in early together and roomed together, and we’ve been together since.
You’re still roommates?
Yeah, we’re still roommates. That’s my roommate until I leave here.
Switching subjects, in Rantoul when you’re out there sweating in the heat every day, is it difficult to keep your weight up?
Yeah, it’s hard. You lose a few pounds every practice. So hydration is a must, and you have to eat a lot.
So you go on the Mike Tisdale 5,000 calorie diet?
(laughing) I don’t count the calories, I just know I eat a lot of food.
So what’s a typical meal in Rantoul when you’re trying to keep the weight on?
Start with a big salad, whatever lean meat we have that day – whether it’s steak or chicken, I try to get a few pieces of meat – and then try to get a lot of carbohydrates with pasta. You just eat a lot, that’s the key.
So of all the offensive linemen, who eats the most?
That’s tough. I would have given it to Graham a few years ago, but he’s not the old Graham. So I’m going have to go with Jack Cornell. He eats a ton.
OK, give me your opinion. You have the chance to stonewall a defensive end on a pass play – just completely take him out of the play – or chip your guy and get to a linebacker on a running play and just completely take the linebacker out. Which do you like more?
They’re both a great feeling. But nailing a linebacker on the second level – usually when you get that done, it creates a big running lane. And those turn out to be big plays. So I would rather do that.
Who is the toughest guy you’ve had to pass protect against?
That’s a tough one, man. There have been a lot of great defensive ends. The most recent was Ryan Kerrigan. He was a tough guy. He has a lot of critics now saying he’s not as good as advertised, which I don’t understand. He’s really good. And Brandon Graham was pretty legit. So I’m looking forward to seeing those guys again on Sundays.
Why did you pick Illinois? Take me back to that decision.
It was close to home, and I had seen a lot of friends from back home come here, like Juice Williams. I was younger than him, so I kind of looked up to him. I wanted to come here because of him. So when I got the opportunity, I knew this was where I wanted to be. It’s not far, so my mom can come down and see me. Also, Coach Zook and the family atmosphere here. He’s a man of his word. He sticks to what he says. He doesn’t lie in recruiting.
Is it hard to believe you’re facing your final season here? That this fall will be your final year on the field?
Yeah. It’s gone really fast. Coach Zook says every year, “you look up and you’re going to be done here”. You don’t believe it when you’re younger, but each year goes so fast. You just have to appreciate the opportunity you have here and take full advantage of it. I think I’ve done that so far. I’m looking forward to this season and having a big year.
Do you have any personal goals for the year?
Be the best player I can be. Be the best offensive lineman in the country. Be the best group in the country.
So tell me about this line. Strongside tackle is still up in the air, but the rest of the line seems pretty set. How do you think you’ll do this fall?
We can be as good as we want, we just have to put in the work. We have all the tools, we have all the experience we need, we just have to be tough. We have to go out and be physical and play hard. We have a young guy at strong tackle, but with the four of us being experienced, we can kind of balance it out. We can give him encouragement and teach him and bring him along faster.
I talked with Jay Prosch last week and he told me he was an offensive lineman his junior year of high school. Do you guys consider him your 6th offensive lineman?
He is. He’s very physical back there. Every week you look forward to watching film because you know he’s going to punish someone. He comes down and absolutely destroys linebackers. I love watching film just to see him come down hill. We don’t get a running start to just hammer someone like that, but it’s a beautiful thing.
Do you have any goals for the team? I’m not trying to get you to do a prediction or anything, but would you say getting back to a bowl game is important?
It’s very important. That’s always a goal for us here. This year, I think we have a much different attitude. Last year, Coach Zook told us we have the talent to win every game, and I don’t think we really believed him, because we didn’t come out and play like it every week. But I think we believe that this year. Last year we lost a few close games that we should have won, and that just comes with believing. Just willing out the victories. I think this year, we have the right attitude. There’s a lot of enthusiasm at practice. There’s a lot of guys working extra in the weight room and watching extra film on their own.
You mentioned close games – how difficult was the Michigan game last year?
You don’t realize it during the game, you realize it more after, but watching them rush the field, that was hard. I’ll never forget that last play in overtime. I can tell you the play, I can tell you what blitz they ran, everything. It’s a sick feeling, and I still have it. I’m looking forward to facing them again.
Last question: 8 home games this year, are you excited about that?
I’m very excited about that. Playing at home and having our fans behind us gives us an extra edge. We have 8 home games, and our goal is to win all of our home games, so that’s 8 victories. That would set us up in a nice situation, bowl-wise.