Like most people who watched him, Florida coach Jim McElwain was impressed with the mechanics of a rising junior named Jake Allen as he watched him throw at his camp last June. What McElwain didn’t know from watching him was that this same kid also had an additional, entirely different, and even more impressive skill set.
Allen earned an official offer from Florida that day, and announced his commitment three weeks later. And from that day on, McElwain, his assistants, and Gator fans alike got to witness that special skill set for themselves.
Allen, you see, mastered the art of being a leader, in all phases of life, at the young age of sixteen. Being a quarterback isn’t just about throwing a football 80 yards, or being able to fit a ball through a tire. To be an effective quarterback at a high level, you need to gain the trust and respect of your teammates.
This was why Allen committed so early, almost two years before he’s scheduled to sign his letter of intent. “The quarterback is the leader of the team,” Allen said. “I wanted to be a leader wherever I went. I wanted to get my guys, kind of handpick my future teammates, wherever I went. And that place is Florida. I always knew I wanted to be a Gator, so why wait?”
Florida fans, though, will have to wait. Allen still has one more year of high school to go before he’ll become a Gator. But the tangible and intangible things he’s accomplished in his young life suggest he’ll be more than worth the wait.
Perhaps even more impressive than the leadership role Allen has taken in his recruiting class is the leadership role he’s taken on his high school team.
Following his sophomore year at Cardinal Gibbons High School, Allen elected to transfer to St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale. For those who don’t know, Aquinas is the quintessential national powerhouse, with eight state titles and enough big time football alumni to field an NFL team. Walking into any brand new locker room, let alone one with such prestige, and taking the reins of the offense isn’t something most people could do.
Allen, though, isn’t most people. His coach at Aquinas, Roger Harriott, said that he had no issues not only acclimating himself to his new environment, but becoming a leader on his new team. Allen’s teammates immediately bought into his leadership during summer practice, and the Raiders were feeling quite confident in themselves by the time they faced Booker T. Washington on ESPN to open the 2015 season.
But feeling confident is one thing. Now, it was time to perform, and Aquinas’s leader was more than ready to go. “I knew all the Gator fans were watching, and I knew all my family and friends were watching,” said Allen. “So I told myself, you’ve prepared all summer, and all your life for a day like this, so I just went out there and played with the same confidence I’d built up for myself.”
Allen rode that confidence to a big game, going 16-24 for 252 yards and four touchdown passes on the night, and led Aquinas to a 35-3 blowout of Booker T. Washington to snap BTW’s 41 game winning streak. Most quarterbacks would be downright giddy about such a night, but while Allen was certainly proud of what his team had just accomplished, he remains adamant that it wasn’t a surprise. “We just knew from watching film that they couldn’t stop us,” Allen declared. “Coach Harriott put together an awesome game plan, and we knew what we were going to do.”
To go from a stranger to a vocal leader who can instill that mindset in and wring such positive results out of his new teammates within a locker room simply isn’t something most people can do in four years, let alone four months. Granted, Aquinas has a rich tradition of winning, and had a talented team even before Allen got there, but to so quickly endear himself to a new group of guys and build such strong chemistry and relationships with them is something only true leaders can do.
But it’s easy to lead when things are going well, and it’s easy for guys to follow a leader when wins are piling up. When times get tough, it suddenly becomes much harder to lead, as the routines and mindsets that were present during the good times no longer come equipped with the guaranteed prize at the end of the road simply for following them. And when St. Thomas Aquinas lost an ugly 6-3 game to Deerfield Beach- a game in which their leader got injured- it would have been so easy for the Raiders to implode.
Allen wouldn’t let it happen, delivering a simple message to his teammates. “That game lit a fire under our team,” he told me. “It proved to us that, ‘You know what? We aren’t the best right now. We just lost.’ And they responded really well.”
Allen may have injured his back in that Deerfield Beach game, but as the great leaders do, he found other ways to be productive. He rallied his team from the bench, helped tutor backup QB Beau Fillichio, and was given the green light to point out anything he saw that coaches may have missed. Leading without playing was a new, different kind of role, but one that Allen was no less effective at than when he was slinging bullets all over the field. The Raiders rolled to four straight wins in his absence, and when he returned, they were more than ready to follow their leader once again.
Aquinas regained its quarterback for their playoff game against Dwyer, and immediately upon walking into the huddle for the first time, Allen could instantly see that his teammates had picked up his energy. “Something had changed with them,” he said. “This team had a whole new attitude since that Deerfield Beach game. There was this attitude that said, ‘we weren’t going to be stopped.'”
And they weren’t. The team’s new and improved attitude paved the way for four playoff wins by a combined 122 points, capped off by a 45-10 blowout over Viera for the school’s ninth state championship. At long last, Allen was able to look back at the journey he took and smile a little bit. “It felt great,” he recalled. “All that hard work we’d put in since the summer, from film room sessions to practices and even day after game team yoga sessions, everything finally paid off for us. We proved that we’re the best team in 7A. It wasn’t someone telling us this, or us telling ourselves anymore. This was us showing it.”
Thus concludes the heroic story of Jake Allen and the 2015 St. Thomas Aquinas football team. But that’s merely one small chapter in the Book of Allen. More specifically, the Raiders’ captain has wasted no time making clear that there’s another story like it that’s yet to be written.
“I want to win another state title next year,” Allen proclaimed.
There’s lots of evidence in his words that suggests he will. When asked what he wanted to work on for next year, Allen admitted that he wanted to make personal improvements, but that was the extent he was willing to talk about himself. “I’ve never been about stats or numbers,” he stated. “Obviously I want to play the best I can to put my team in the best position to win, but beyond that I really don’t care for personal achievements. I’d rather be the Peyton Manning, who doesn’t have the best stats but wins the big game, than Cam Newton, who puts up big numbers but loses the big game.”
That, above all else, embodies the kind of quarterback the Gators’ program has been lacking for six years.
Flashback to the 2010 Sugar Bowl for a moment.
As confetti rained down on the SuperDome, something didn’t look quite right in the eyes of then-Florida coach Urban Meyer. Sure, the Gators’ 2009 season was supposed to end in Pasadena, not New Orleans, and was supposed to be about perfection, not salvation. But given the circumstances- namely that Florida wasn’t playing for a national title- the ending had to be about as happy as could be, right?
Maybe it was more than that, though. And maybe it was more than the health issues that plagued Meyer, or maybe that was an effect of another issue. Maybe it was his realization upon watching Tim Tebow climb the makeshift stage to accept the MVP award that he was saying goodbye to his record setting quarterback. His hero. His leader. And maybe it was his fear of not being able to replace Tebow, not just in terms of his productivity, but leadership as well, that made him appear uneasy.
Six years can change a lot, and in the case of the Gators’ football program, it has changed a lot. But one thing that hasn’t changed since the moment Tebow was finished rampaging through Cincinnati’s defense in that Sugar Bowl is that Florida has, to put it nicely, ‘struggled’ at the quarterback position.
The names on the backs of the jerseys may have changed from Brantley to Burton to Brissett to Driskel to Murphy to Mornhinweg, and more recently, from Grier to Harris, but the Gators’ difficulties in finding a leader have not. Jeff Driskel had some intermittent success in 2012, but couldn’t do it consistently enough and his Gator career was killed by a blind side hit early in 2013. And in 2015, Will Grier looked like he could be that perfect leader after a great performance in a 38-10 beatdown of Ole Miss, but put his team in a terrible position by getting busted for taking PEDs… and thus leaving them with the unenviable task of trying to manufacture offense with the ineffective Treon Harris at quarterback.
So if Meyer’s somewhat nervous look as he watched Tebow accept his Sugar Bowl MVP award was at all related to his concern about the future of the Gators’ QB position, well, he had every right to be.
That’s the program Allen will walk into a year from now. Like Aquinas, Florida has a rich history of winning and championships, and the Gators will have plenty of talent at other positions already in place. But unlike the situation he entered into at Aquinas, Allen will become the newest face at a position that has been the source of great frustration for Gator coaches and fans alike.
Allen knows that Florida has signed the extremely promising but raw Feleipe Franks in this past year’s class, and has embraced the challenge of competing with him before he ever embarked on it. “Competition’s a great thing,” Allen said. “But I’m going into the University of Florida with the mindset that I’m going to play right away. Sometimes, people will say, ah, blah blah blah, he’s not ready, etc. That’s not me and never will be. I’m going do all I can to prepare my body and prepare my mind to be ready to play as soon as I get on campus.”
After a pause, Allen added: “And you know what? If I don’t get the shot to play right away, then so be it. I’ll be ready to be a great teammate, because that’ll be how I can help. But I’m always thinking positive. So I’m going in believing that I’ll play right away.”
At the end of the day, words are words, and they pale in comparison to actions. People exude confidence all the time, and no demographic more so than 16-17 year old kids.
But the difference is, Allen has already shown what his words and confident attitude can lead to. Leaders don’t just speak, they act upon the words they speak. And the proof that Allen can effectively do this is evident every time he holds up his hand: a state championship ring bearing the logo of the prestigious football school that he walked into a complete stranger, immediately took charge of and led to glory.