February 25, 2011
Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Sophomore Cal receiver/return man Keenan Allen.
• Typecasting. There was never any doubt after Allen snubbed Alabama for Cal on signing day that he would see the field in Berkeley right away. The only question was where. He was coveted by just about everyone who thought they had a chance last winter as a five-star, can't-miss safety prospect in the rangy mold of former Tennessee All-American Deon Grant. His Rivals scouting report described Allen as "like a smooth jungle cat" deftly prowling across "a ton of acreage in the secondary." Even his official Cal bio, written just before the start of the season, expected Allen to play both ways.
From the beginning, though, Allen was focused on making plays with the ball in his hands: The only significant time he saw as a defender was tracking down opponents after a turnover. He was credited with three tackles in the course of that duty, but otherwise spent his debut campaign as one of the Bears' two front-line receivers, generally trying to make something out of short, safe throws with his quickness or create mismatches against smaller cornerbacks with his 6-3, 200-pound frame.
• Best-Case. If the recruiting hype wasn't enough to get Cal fans a little overheated about his potential in an offense sorely missing consistent playmakers, Allen's first game, against overmatched whipping boy UC-Davis, left the entire football-conscious population of the Bay Area panting for more:
Considering the opponent, the total production (176 yards, two touchdowns on eight touches) was less enticing than the all-purpose fashion in which he accumulated it, via short passes, intermediate passes, screens, an end-around, a chaotic broken play that he turned into his first touchdown; he even came within a hair of hauling in a deep ball he'd gone horizontal for behind the coverage. He was fully integrated into the offense from day one, and already on the verge of becoming its brightest star.
Allen also proved reliable enough to finish second on the team in total receptions, touchdowns and all-purpose yards, most of them accumulated after a few minor injuries began to crop up early in the year, and didn't let up. At full speed, with a year in the system, Allen should settle in as the Bears' new go-to- receiver and begin the progression toward becoming one of the most feared targets in the conference.
• Worst-Case. The overall production was sparse: After averaging 30 yards on four catches in the warm-up game, Allen was only able to wring 376 yards out of a respectable 43 receptions over the last eleven, good for a paltry 8.7 yards per catch. Only two of those grabs, a 29-yarder against Colorado and a 32-yarder at USC – the latter with the game already well in hand for the Trojans – covered at least 25 yards, and fewer than half went for first downs. In the last four games in which Allen appeared (he sat out the Nov. 6 win over Washington State after injuring his knee in warmups), he averaged just 8.4 per catch with no touchdowns while the offense in general failed to top 14 points in any of four losses.
That distinct lack of big-play pop could be chalked up to quarterbacks (Kevin Riley and Brock Mansion) who struggled to get the ball downfield, and/or the injuries that limited Allen's ability to run after the catch on the endless succession of quick hitches and screens designed to protect the quarterback. It could also mean that Allen isn't quite as explosive as advertised against competent defenses, and is bound for the dreaded "possession receiver" tag – or worse, if he struggles to remain healthy for more than a few games at a stretch.
• Fun Fact. The highlight of Allen's freshman campaign may have been the wild, totem-like tattoo he added to his right shoulder and bicep over his first few months on campus – his arm was entirely clean when he arrived – featuring an indian chief and snarling wolf. Wolf tats are cool, just as long as you don't get them on your shirt or your car.
• What to expect in the fall. The bar is set tantalizingly high by Allen's outsized recruiting hype and flashes of corroborating skill. He remains the Bears' best hope of finding the legitimate, All-Pac-12-caliber home run threat they sorely missed last year in the absence of Jahvid Best, and haven't had at receiver since DeSean Jackson burned a path out of Berkeley in 2007. Only UCLA had a more anemic passing attack last year, and whether that was a result of the chicken (the lackluster quarterbacks) or the egg (the lackluster surrounding cast) or both, it's not going to change unless Allen leads the charge out of the mire.
With his size and slightly less-than-Jacksonian speed, progress for Allen may be a product of consistency and reliability rather than highlight-reel flash. At this point, Jeff Tedford will take itbecause off his first losing season, he and his quarterbacks will take all the help they can get.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.