BY MIKE LUCAS
UWBadgers.com Senior Writer
MADISON, Wis. — Howard Griffith saw something in Braelon Allen that a casual observer may have missed. The Big Ten Network analyst, who once rushed for an NCAA-record eight touchdowns in a single game at Illinois, has a discerning eye for top-shelf tailbacks and what separates them from others.
As part of his spring tour of conference schools, Griffith was in town to check out Wisconsin’s personnel. So, it was understandable that the player wearing “0” on his jersey — the precocious Allen — would command Griffith’s attention during last Thursday’s practice at the McClain Center.
“He plays well without the football,” he said. “That’s one of the things that stands out when I watch backs, particularly the talented guys. What do they do when they don’t have the football in their hands? Are they carrying out their fakes? Are they running routes as if the ball is coming to them?
“That was one of the things that made JT (Jonathan Taylor) really unbelievable. He played hard whether he was getting the ball or not. Allen does the same things … What you see when you watch him practice, he’s hungry. He’s out there to be the best teammate and better his game to help the program.
“When you set that type of tempo where everybody believes that ‘You’re the guy, You’re the man’ — when you’re working as hard as you can work on every play — that has a ripple effect when the film gets turned on. Guys take note of that … Coaches make notes of that.
“That’s what really creates a fever around a program. If one of your best players is working as hard as he can — and it shows up — you’d better believe everyone else is going to be working hard because nobody ultimately wants to be the weak link.”
Agreeing with Griffith’s assessment, Allen said, “You have a job to do whether you’re getting the ball or not. You should always try to do that to the best of your ability. Even if I’m not getting the ball, there is a purpose for it. That might be to open up another route or draw some guys towards me.”
All of this was reinforced for Allen by none other than the aforementioned JT.
“I had a good conversation with Jonathan Taylor about preparing for the season, he gave me some good advice,” Allen said. “The main thing is the main thing. That is something that he told me over and over again. Everything you do is for a purpose. And that purpose is to be a great football player.”
After Saturday’s first padded practice — “Getting back into hitting at this time of the year is a little strange but I’m happy to be back,” Allen said — he was reminded that a year ago to the day (March 26, 2021) he was playing for Fond du Lac High School in its “alternate fall season” opener at Manitowoc.
“I remember we got off to a very rough start,” said Allen, who was lining up at safety and running back for the Cardinals. “We started on defense and the second play of the game; they took it to the house on a run right up the middle. That kind of worried me a little.”
Very little. The first time Allen touched the ball, he bolted 65 yards for a touchdown. He had three scores in the first quarter alone and sparked Fond du Lac to 63 unanswered points and the first of seven wins in a perfect spring during which Allen rushed for 1,047 yards and averaged 14.7 per carry.
“You watch his tape from high school and, yeah, he could do it all,” Griffith said. “But he was the best player on the field regardless of position. And then you see him get here and he’s competing against other college players. And, wow, it didn’t take long for him to have an impact.
“The first thing that jumped out at you was how physical he was as a player. I hesitate to compare backs. They’re all playing in different systems and sometimes they’re asked to do different thing. I know some people say it’s JT But you don’t want to put that type of pressure on him.
“I think he’s kind of developing his own sense and style. I know they’ve had big backs of his physical stature — I don’t know necessarily that any of those guys physically looked like how he looks. I mean, shoot, this guy is quick. He’s quick in the hole.
“Those are just things you don’t see from a young back… then you realize he’s only 17.”
And he was identified as such — 17-year-old Braelon Allen — in every utterance and medium.
“It gave me kind of a brand,” Allen said. “Everyone knew me as a 17-year-old. It was cool.”
Since turning 18 in January, he acknowledged, “I definitely feel a little older.”
Making that Fond du Lac vs. Manitowoc opener from last March seems even more distant.
“So many things have happened — seems like forever ago,” he said. “It’s weird, this is my first spring (practice), and everybody has had three or four springs. I’m not a vet yet but I feel like I’ve got a veteran’s presence. I feel like I’m sort of an offensive leader on this team. Especially in the RB room.”
• • • •
Last season, yes, as a 17-year-old, Allen rushed for 1,268 yards (105.7) despite only 12 carries over the first four games. Ron Dayne (1996), James White (2010) and Taylor (2017) are the only other UW tailbacks to run for more than 1,000 as true freshmen. What’s next for 18-year-old Braelon Allen?
“When you watch him and you talk to the coaches, it’s clear that he has a high football IQ,” Griffith said. “But I don’t think he’s scratched the surface. As the game continues to slow down for him and he continues to learn what all the other guys are supposed to be doing as well…
“He’s going to continue to set up his blocks better — being more patient. Understanding when he gets opportunities to run pass routes, how to do that at a high level, the sky is the limit to what he’s going to be able to do with his athleticism.”
As for the potential of a sophomore jinx, Griffith said, “A lot of it has to do with what is going on around him. Graham Mertz continues to grow as a player, and they don’t turn the ball over the way they did (13 lost fumbles)…
“If the offensive line continues to get better and they get help outside at the wide receiver position — all of those things to me play a factor on whether or not a person has the quote-unquote sophomore jinx,” the 53-year-old Griffith rationalized.
“Sometimes with the sophomore jinx, it may be because the player has taken a little bit of what he has granted for granted. The mental part of it is a big part of it. But I don’t get the sense from the coaches and watching Allen practice, that is going to be an issue for him.”
Taylor’s numbers didn’t fall off his sophomore year. On the contrary. He led the FBS in rushing yards and won his first Doak Walker Award.
Allen has no plans to take a step back in 2022. He has processed everything that Taylor told him about “purpose” and “greatness” and he says that has been a motivating force “just having that in the back of your mind whenever you’ re doing something.” Like lifting weights, an Allen passion.
In late February, he set a personal best, by one pound, in the power clean with a lift of 406.
On the benefits of that particular lift for a tailback, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Allen explained, “It’s very good for explosiveness and power. It’s a good mix of both — exploding in getting the bar off the ground and then having the power from squat to squat it up.”
Since rushing for 159 yards in the Las Vegas Bowl, a 20-13 win over Arizona State, Allen said of his offseason focus, “Much of it was on mobility and flexibility. Honestly, the explosive exercises are the things that people don’t normally think about. I just want to improve my overall athleticism.
“I’m just trying to become a better running back overall,” he added, with the intent that by the end of the NCAA-allotted 15 spring practices on April 22, “I want to be better in the pass game and have a better understanding of the offense and what we’re trying to do.”
• • • •
Enter a new offensive coordinator, Bobby Engram. “He’s definitely energetic,” Allen said. “He brings something a little bit different to the offense. Both football-wise and personality-wise. Schematically, it’s a little bit different, too. We’re spreading it out a little more and throwing some bombs.”
An inexperienced but promising receiving corps includes Chimere Dike, Markus Allen, Skyler Belltransfer Keontez Lewis and converted defensive back Dean Engram. If they can stretch the field, according to Allen, it “will open up the box a little bit more” for the running game, something which Engram understands is a staple.
Last week, Engram said of the offense, “You’re going to see some things that you’ll recognize and hopefully you’ll see some things that are unfamiliar. Every year, you have to rebuild the foundation and you have to start over with the fundamentals. This is our first time together as a team.
“As an offensive unit, over the course of time, that will define itself.”
Griffith is convinced the Badgers are in good hands with Engram as coordinator.
“I think he can have a huge impact because it’s a different voice and sometimes players need to hear different voices,” Griffith said. “Watching him work (on the field) … he was communicating with everyone before and after practice. That’s a big part of the game being able to gain the trust and be relatable to the players. You only get so many practices in the spring.
“So, you have to build that rapport as quickly as you can on the field.”
During spring ball, the Badgers are operating with four healthy returners — Allen, Jackson Acker, Julius Davis and Grover Bortolotti — and a couple of unproven fullbacks in Garrison Solliday and Riley Nowakowski. Rehabbing from injuries are Chez Mellusi, Isaac Guerendo and Brady Schipper.
Up until he got hurt at Rutgers (Nov. 6), Mellusi, the Clemson transfer, had been the ideal complement to Allen, giving the offense an efficient one-two punch. In nine games, Mellusi rushed for 815 yards (90.6) and five touchdowns. Four times, he ran for 100 yards or more with a high of 149.
Without Mellusi, Allen had to shoulder the burden of the running attack the final three weeks of the regular season. Although he had 173 rushing yards against Northwestern and 228 against Nebraska, it began to take a toll physically. Two days after the bowl, he weighed 227 pounds, down from 238.
“In this day and age, the way the game is called, the physical nature of what they do with the Badgers, you need to have two guys you can rely upon to do everything in a game,” Griffith said. “To have a one-two punch is only going to help Allen’s game.”
When Griffith walked off the practice field last Thursday, he had a snapshot of the Badgers.
“It’s obviously early as far as the number of practices that they’ve had,” he said. “But I had a good feeling walking away from there. They’ve got young players that they’re going to need to rely upon. But the energy was there, which you love to see.
“There’s not a talent gap. There’s not a scheme gap. There were just times when mistakes were made… With all the stuff that they went through last year (1-3 start), one of the things that really stood out was that the players continued to believe in themselves.”
And in a 17-year-old tailback who celebrated his 18th birthday by working out. Of course, he did.