East Lansing — On a team of roughly 115 players, there’s bound to be some characters.
At Michigan State, none are as unique as center Jack Allen.
He’s everything you would expect of an All-American center.
He has the tough look, the gruff exterior complete with a bushy beard and bald head. And when he’s on the field, he’s all business, routinely pushing defensive linemen to the ground and giving them one final shot when they try to get up.
He’s got the smarts one would expect of the leader of the offensive line. Often times, Allen is shifting protections before quarterback Connor Cook has barked out a signal.
But that’s just one aspect of the 6-foot-2, 296-pound former high school wrestling state champion.
He shared a pet cat named “Bubbles” with roommate Paul Lang, a fifth-year senior tight end. He’s also got a pet python, he fills in as a part-time masseuse on the road, and when asked why he went to an optional practice instead of walking in his graduation ceremony, the reason was simple.
“It was a shorter walk,” Allen said.
It was the perfect answer for Allen, who is truly a big part of what makes up the heart and soul of the Spartans.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He keeps people loose, but he’s a very intense guy and he’s a guy that takes challenges on. ... That’s one of the reasons he was elected captain.”
And that’s what makes Allen perfect for this team — the one that thrives with the chip on its shoulder, being told it isn’t good enough, that it has no business thinking it can play with mighty Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.
After all, it’s what Allen has been hearing his whole life. He had few offers to play major college football coming out of Hinsdale, Illinois.
Too short. Not athletic enough. Stubby arms. He should play defensive tackle.
“It’s kind of funny to laugh about now,” Allen says with a smile and a shake of the head.
That’s because not only has Allen become one of the biggest reasons Michigan State has turned itself into one of the premier programs in the country, but Allen has become one of the best offensive linemen in college football.
He’s been named an All-American by the Associated Press, CBS Sports and SI.com after earning the same honor last season from USA Today. It made him just the third Spartan offensive lineman to earn first-team All-American honors twice and only the 15th player in MSU history.
Allen also has been first-team all-Big Ten the last two seasons, was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy in each of those years and has been named Academic all-Big Ten four times.
“I was trying to think if Jack has ever given up a sack,” said Cook, who has taken snaps from Allen for nearly all of his 38 starts. “Watching film and being out there with him, he always does his job. That’s what is so great about him. His snaps are always right there.
“If I’m not changing protections, he is, and just his run-blocking and pass-blocking, he just always does his job and rarely ever messes up, if he ever even has. I’ve been so fortunate to have a center like him.”
Sound work ethic
It’s taken work for Allen to be as good as he is. He realizes he doesn’t have perfect size, but makes up for it in toughness and work ethic.
Even as a redshirt freshmen, Allen made a point to ask as many questions as he could. He needed to soak it all up to become the best.
“Just his drive, he has a great center of gravity,” defensive tackle Joel Heath said. “The biggest thing is his power and to be able to stop you from getting where you need to be. He’s a nasty guy. He’s peaceful outside of football, but on the field he is a nasty guy.”
Forty-seven games and 46 starts later, Allen has helped lead his team reach college football’s biggest stage. At times, Allen thinks back to when it started and has trouble coming to grips with the fact the Spartans are in this position now.
Nearly five years ago, he was a true freshman horsing around in the dorms with another group of wide-eyed kids who had no idea they’d eventually become the winningest class in Michigan State history.
“I never really thought something like this would happen to me or be part of a team like this,” Allen said. “To think back on that to now is pretty incredible.”
NFL draft ahead
There seems little doubt, however, this will be the end of Allen’s football career. He’ll hear plenty in the upcoming months about how he is undersized for the NFL, but can anyone count him out?
He’s already accepted a spot in the Senior Bowl and many project him as a mid-round draft pick in next May’s NFL Draft. There will be plenty of teams to pass on the guy who not only was an All-American center this year, but played left tackle when Jack Conklin was out and scored a touchdown in the final regular-season game.
Those teams likely will look foolish someday, the same way Allen and his teammates have been making the naysayers feel.
But that’s still to come. For now, it’s back to business for Allen. Admiring his work will come later.
“It’s something I’ll look back on in a year or two,” he said. “But we’ve still got a job to get done and we’re focused on what’s ahead.”
The Spartans have come to expect nothing less from Allen.
Alabama vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Dec. 31, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: No. 2 Alabama 12-1, No. 3 Michigan State 12-1
Line: Alabama by 9.5