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UK OLB Josh Allen breaks down the win over Middle Tennessee.
Jon Hale, Louisville Courier Journal

It has become a footnote in the much-told story of how Josh Allen went from two-star recruit to National Defensive Player of the Year for Kentucky, but for Kevin Callahan, the footnote is the most memorable part of the tale.

Allen arrived at Kentucky after a rash of late decommittments in the 2015 recruiting cycle necessitated a few Hail Mary scholarship offers before signing day. A New Jersey high school coaching contact had clued in UK coach Mark Stoops that there was a dynamic pass rusher in his area who had somehow flown under the radar.

Allen was already pledged to FCS Monmouth, but that would be no hurdle to overcome should an SEC offer come through. 

“We thought he was a diamond in the rough; we thought he was a gem that we had uncovered,” said Callahan, Monmouth’s coach of 26 years, when reached by phone between recruiting visits this week. “We certainly weren’t going to tell a lot of people about him, because we were hoping that we could hang onto him.”

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In part because he spent the first three years of high school playing wide receiver in Alabama, Allen escaped the notice of most FBS programs even after leading New Jersey in sacks as a senior.

John Fiore, his coach at Montclair High School, tried without success to drum up interest from the FBS programs that traditionally recruited the Northeast, including home-state Rutgers.

“I told them if he didn’t work out I’d sell my house and pay for his college education,” Fiore told the Courier Journal last year. “That’s how sure I was of the kid.”

While Rutgers and others met Fiore’s bold predictions with skepticism, Callahan and his staff saw plenty to like in Allen.

“We thought he had a tremendous amount of potential,” Callahan said. “He was a long, athletic, aggressive defensive player. We thought he was somebody that would put on weight and gain strength over time and would certainly fill out. We saw a huge upside in it, and at the time we were looking for that type of player, players in that position, so we felt it was a no-brainer for us to make a scholarship offer to him.”

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The gambit almost paid off as well.

Had defensive end Tyrone Riley not been among of group of UK commitments who flipped in the week before signing day, Kentucky might not have ever considered Allen for an offer.

Riley now plays offensive tackle for NC State. Allen is ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the 2019 NFL draft class by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

“At the time we were tremendously disappointed in losing a player we thought had a huge upside and a tremendous amount of potential, but in situations like that when you’re an FCS school and an FBS team comes in and is able to provide an opportunity with somebody, it’s hard to be upset about it,” Callahan said.

Callahan was quick to note it is impossible to criticize another staff’s recruiting decisions without knowing the specifics of their needs and scholarship limitations in a given class, but he acknowledged he was surprised there wasn’t more competition for Allen when Monmouth was recruiting him.

Kentucky’s staff deserves much credit for developing Allen, who added close to 40 pounds in his four years in Lexington, from a rangy athlete into the program’s career and single-season sacks record holder, but Callahan and his Monmouth assistants can take pride in the fact they were the first coaches to identify Allen’s potential.

Related: ‘I do it all for him’: Kentucky’s Josh Allen motivated by infant son

“We were excited about it; we thought he would be a great football player here at Monmouth,” Callahan said. “We were just on the verge of going into the Big South and leaving the Northeast Conference and he was the type of player that we were looking for.”

Even with Allen at Kentucky, Monmouth has found its own success, posting at least eight wins in the last two seasons and reaching the FCS playoffs in 2017.

But when an assistant coach asked Callahan earlier this year if he remembered the two-star diamond in the rough the team lost to an SEC program at the last minute, he had no trouble recalling the story.

“He goes, ‘You should see what he’s doing down at Kentucky; he’s one of the best defensive players in the SEC right now,'” Callahan said. “That was one of those things where you look back and say, ‘Wow, what might have been, what could have been.’ But we’re excited for him. We’re excited for what he’s doing and the success that he’s having. I think it says a lot about the talent level of football in the state of New Jersey. That’s where we’ve built our program, from guys in the home state here, New Jersey guys.”

More news: Kentucky loses Mr. Football Wandale Robinson to Nebraska

Jon Hale: jahale@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @JonHale_CJ. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/jonh.

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