Eagles' Allen: Such a boar

Posted: November 22, 2013

HUNTING WILD boar in the Florida swamps in daylight with rifles on a fat-tire machine - now, that's fun.

Nate Allen prefers it when the sun goes down and the hounds come out.

"We go out there in the marshland in a swamp buggy, from 1 o'clock in the afternoon. You can shoot guns in the daytime. At nighttime, the guns go away. You go get 'em by hand.

"That's when it gets intense."

With caramel skin and a porcelain smile and light brown eyes, Allen might look like a soap opera star, but he's a fan of "Duck Dynasty." Since high school, he has been called a pretty boy. He was nicknamed "The Golden Child" by less-appealing teammates.

Those teammates would not recognize Allen in the offseason.

He mothballs his tailor-made suits and shoes and breaks out the camouflage gear. He lets his tightly clipped hair grow wild, sprouts a mangy beard and heads for swamplands, all day . . . and into the night.

"My buddy has an 8,000-acre lease," he said. "You have these hunting dogs. They corner the boar. You have tracking collars on the dogs, and you find the dogs with GPS, and there's the boar.

"You slip behind them in the dark. Grab 'em by the hind legs. Flip 'em over and tie 'em up."

Allen shows a picture of a friend kneeling in the half-light next to a trussed-up "fat boy" - a black boar hog with evil tusks that weighs more than 350 pounds.

"They're nasty. Dangerous," Allen said. "They come at you. If you let 'em go, you have to have a place to run. One time, my buddy jumped on the swamp buggy to get away. That boar almost popped the tire."

This is not the Nate Allen that Eagles fans have come to know, and, sometimes, to loathe. The Nate Allen they have come to know is aloof and polite. In their eyes, he plays that way on the field - soft, pretty, refined.

That Nate Allen would be the worst possible replacement for Brian Dawkins, who shared his demons with the proletariat, who emoted on every play, who criticized his teammates and himself.

The Golden Child could not survive at safety in Philadelphia. A second-round pick in 2010, Allen has yet to be effective or healthy for a full campaign. His contract expires after this season.

But then, The Golden Child is not the real Nate Allen. The real Nate Allen has rougher edges than he has shown so far.

"The 'Florida Cracker' is definitely a real thing," Allen said. "And I'm a 'Florida Cracker.' "

Allen's mother is a white schoolteacher and his father a black security guard, but this connotation of "Cracker" has nothing to do with race (or Riley Cooper). "Florida Cracker" simply delineates the native Floridian good ol' boy from the Northern transplants.

The native good ol' boy fishes in the flats and hunts wild boar. The transplants charter deep-sea boats and hunt for outlet malls.

When Allen says he's a Florida Cracker, he is calling himself a flatland hillbilly, but he doesn't look anything like a hillbilly. He hasn't played like it, either. Hillbillies are tough guys, playmakers.

Allen hasn't intercepted a pass in 26 games. He has one sack in 43.

But Allen, inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans and outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Trent Cole have been the veteran constants as Billy Davis' new 3-4 defense surged. It has given up 17.4 points the past seven games after allowing 27.5 in the first four. Ask about Ryans, Barwin or Cole, and Eagles coaches rave; Ryans, said Davis, is having a Pro Bowl year.

Ask about Allen and they'll tell you that he has finally learned how to tackle.

To be fair, Davis is eager for Allen to receive recognition for his improved play.

To be sure, Allen had a long way to go.

"The one thing in tackling that we saw from a year ago is, everything was an arm tackle because the head placement was wrong, which turns an arm tackle into a body tackle," Davis said. "I think Nate has benefited."

He wouldn't be able to tackle correctly if his eyes didn't lead him to the right place. Before this season, Allen often took poor angles to his targets.

"Before the snap, a year ago, I thought his eyes were terrible," Davis said. "He's looking where he should look now. That's helping him make better decisions after the ball's snapped."

It helps, too, that Allen doesn't have to be a fourth linebacker anymore.

"The biggest difference in the scheme change for Nate was, in the wide-nine, the low safety had an inside run gap. He struggled," Davis said. "We do not give that responsibility to our safeties. With our scheme, he can play back."

Playing back means fewer big plays surrendered. It also means fewer chances to make big plays, which usually come close to the line of scrimmage.

"Unless we're in a three-deep zone where they're covering flats, or unless they're inverted down, you're not going to hear our safeties' names," said John Lovett, Allen's position coach.

Maybe big plays will come for Allen with health and stability. Allen has had his knee repaired and has had four different defensive coordinators in three systems.

"I don't use the injury as an excuse, and I don't look at how many coordinators I've had. It doesn't matter if I have three new ones in the same year," Allen said. "That comes with being a pro."

No, it doesn't. That's bizarre - but not unusual for Allen.

"He's used to it. He had three coaches in high school," said his father, Jackie, "and two coordinators in college. But yes, four coordinators and three systems in 4 years - Nate is smart, and he doesn't make excuses, but that's a lot."

Dawkins, by comparison, could not have scripted a more nurturing introduction to the league.

His first three seasons, Dawkins played with veteran safety Mike Zordich and Pro Bowl corners Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor. Dawkins learned one simple, conservative system already installed by Ray Rhodes and Emmitt Thomas, both respected defensive coaches, both accomplished defensive NFL backs.

Allen had no such guidance or stability. He was surrounded by underqualified coordinators, overrated cornerbacks.

Still, Allen had intercepted three passes and logged two sacks as a rookie when, with two games to play, he tore his right patella tendon. He returned for the start of 2011, but he was both slower and hesitant.

"It still was in the back of my mind a lot of my second year," Allen admitted. "The main thing was coming to a complete stop. Playing out of breaks. That's how I did it. Especially when it got cold, I started thinking about it a little more."

The coaching circus ended this year when Davis and Lovett arrived. They were glad to have Allen.

A raw, athletic quarterback who passed for 5,000 yards at Cape Coral (Fla.) High and made more than 900 tackles as a safety, Allen also scored more than 1,000 points on the basketball court. He intercepted nine passes at South Florida, four of them as a senior, which caught Davis' eye when he was running Arizona's defense in 2010.

"We had him really high on our draft board. He's athletic. Intelligent," Davis said. "If you're gauging it on broken-up passes or interceptions, I wish he could get more attention for playing better, because he got such a beating last year and early on in this year. Everybody was saying he wasn't what everybody thought he'd be. He doesn't have big stats, but he's having a very good season for us."

Good enough to warrant a contract extension? This is the time of year when the Eagles typically offer extensions to players that they like. Allen said the Eagles have not spoken with him.

"Right now, it's our job to make sure we evaluate all of our players, so we can make the best decisions when we have the opportunity to make those decisions and go forward," general manager Howie Roseman said.

In other words: Show us more.

Allen understands. He admits his tackling and pursuit have drastically improved; that they needed improvement. He says he is "excited" to see what the future brings.

For the moment, the future held a trip home to Cape Coral for the bye week. This time he traveled with his family, who attends every home game: his mom little Darlene and big Jackie, who played pro basketball overseas; along with 16-year-old Kelsey, an accomplished athlete in her own right, and a stunner who keeps Nate from being the best-looking member of the family. His half-brother, 36-year-old Marcel, makes rarer appearances.

The more distant future will see Allen travel to the Bahamas for teammate Kurt Coleman's wedding. The pair developed a friendship based in Allen's Baptist faith and their baptisms by fire: Coleman also plays safety, and he shared many of Allen's worst moments on the field. Coleman played at Ohio State, where he grew accustomed to a harsh spotlight. He saw Allen's skin thicken as fans at Lincoln Financial Field derided them.

"I think he's learned how to accept praise and criticism," Coleman said.

South Philly could not be more different from South Florida. In South Philly, there is no such thing as a Golden Child. Dawkins is as close as anybody ever came.

"I'm not him. I'm not going to try to be him," Allen said, his smile fading. "If I was worrying about trying to live up to the legend of Brian Dawkins - he's a Hall of Famer. I would drive myself crazy."

He just plays.

His back and shoulders clearly grew broader in the past 12 months, the natural growth of a 25-year-old man into his well-knitted body. Allen credits the sports science doctrine new head coach Chip Kelly introduced with helping Allen maintain his 210-pound playing weight through the 24 weeks of training and games. Allen said he always rested well and ate wisely - Checkers fries, his weakness, twice a week at most - but the agonizing foam-roller exercises and the more frequent massage therapy have helped moderate the wear and tear.

"The soft-tissue stuff we do helps a lot. All the stuff with your tendons and muscles and all of that," Allen said. "I don't have as many dings as I had in the past, so I can lift like I want to. I have more energy."

He has never wasted energy on frustration with his issues, be they injuries or coaches or critics. He does not waste energy now as he approaches free agency for the first time.

"I don't hear the crowd. I don't read the media. I'm big in my faith. I see the bigger picture," Allen said. "Football is a blessing. We're playing a kid's game. Not saying I don't love the game, but if football ended tomorrow, I wouldn't go into a state of depression and fall off the face of the earth. Sometimes guys make it bigger than it really is.

"Football is not real life."

Real life is barehanded, nighttime boar hunting, in a deep, South Florida swamp.

Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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