This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2021 Nebraska Football Yearbook. Make sure you don’t miss more great stories like this by subscribing today.
It’s hard to miss Austin Allen on a football field. Even in a game played by giants, the 6-foot-8 tight end stands a head above most.
Allen is heading into the 2021 season as the entrenched starter at tight end, and the Huskers are counting on his presence—both on the field and in the locker room—to match his stature.
Allen is Nebraska’s leading returning receiver, but he’s taken a long and winding route to get to this point. In fact, football wasn’t even his first sport—or his second.
“Baseball was actually my favorite sport of all three of them, but when it became middle school time-ish I had to make a decision what I wanted to play in the summer, basketball or baseball, just because that takes up your whole summer, whichever one you pick,” Allen told Hail Varsity. “I thought to myself, realistically me being a 6-3 seventh grader, 6-4 eighth grader, I figured basketball was probably going to be the route I was going to take and what I was going to play in college.”
Allen made the right call. The Aurora native went on to become an all-state performer on the basketball court for the Aurora (Neb.) Huskies, and he started getting some Division I looks while playing summer ball for NBDA Bison. Allen moved well for a player of his height and was a stuff-the-stat-sheet kind of player, but he topped out at 6-foot-8 and wasn’t much of a perimeter shooter, which put him in a tough spot.
“I’ve always loved basketball,” Allen said. “In high school it’s kind of easier to play when you’re 6-8, but a 6-8 center in college is kind of short. That’s kind of crazy to me, but it is what it is.”
Things took a turn during his junior year, starting with the first game of the football season.
“Dalton Peters was one of my teammates in high school and he was probably the hardest worker I ever met,” Allen said. “His dad was a coach. It was after the first game of the season, I had two interceptions and three total touchdowns versus the team and they pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re going to play college football.’ I shrugged them off and said, ‘You’re crazy, I’m going to play college basketball.’
“Midway through the season I started getting letters from these schools, and I went back to them and said, ‘You guys are wizards. How’d you know that?’ But they saw something I didn’t, and I had a pretty good junior year that led me to the offers.”
Allen was a difference-maker on both sides of the ball for the Huskies, starting at tight end (41 receptions for 507 yards, eight touchdowns) and linebacker (51 tackles, five interceptions). The Huskies went 12-1, finishing as the Class B state runner-up.
Allen praised his first head football coach at Aurora, Randy Huebert, for his knowledge of the game, but said Huebert’s successor, Kyle Peterson helped him see the game in a whole new way, a way that took advantage of Allen’s background on the basketball court.
“He helped me understand how to intertwine different types of sports,” Allen said. “He helped me understand that the stuff I learned in basketball could be directly correlated to football and vice versa. We ran a lot of routes where it was just a simple slant and you had to find a hole. He said I should use my stuff that I know just like basketball—find a hole, box out, make a play with my big body, and that kind of helped me understand the game more. That’s really what helped me become a really good player.”
On Feb. 19, 2016, Allen received his first scholarship offer for football — from Mike Riley’s staff at Nebraska. He said he was grateful to receive that offer because it fast-tracked his recruitment. He didn’t have to worry about sorting through Division II or FCS offers early on. When the in-state Power Five school pulls the trigger first, it often sets off a chain reaction.
Offers from Scott Frost’s Central Florida, Iowa State and Iowa followed, but it didn’t even take two full months for Allen to make his decision. On April 14, 2016, he announced his commitment to Nebraska.
“I always knew I was going to Nebraska just because it’s home for me,” Allen said. “I’m a home kid, I’m a country kid. After college, after my career, I’m going to come home, I’m going to stay in central Nebraska.”
Allen got to campus in the summer of 2017 but, like most freshmen, had to wait his turn. He redshirted that first season, which was not an enjoyable experience.
“It sucked,’ Allen said. “I’m not going to lie.”
The four-game redshirt rule had not yet gone into effect in 2017, which meant Allen didn’t get to dip his toe in the water of live game competition. One thing that helped, at least a little bit, was Riley’s decision to let redshirts suit up on game day, even if they weren’t going to play.
Nebraska made a coaching change after that season, bringing Frost and his staff from UCF to Lincoln, which Allen described as things coming “full circle.”
“I wanted to play for Frost; if he was at a closer school I’d have given that a lot of attention,” Allen said. “But I’m a country kid and Orlando’s not really my cup of tea, so to say. But it was nice for me to see them come back, just because I know he’s seen it all, he’s done it all, he’s been in my small-town shoes, and it was beneficial for me, just because I can connect with him a lot more than the last staff.”
Allen played in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman but only made two catches, a 13-yard gain against Bethune-Cookman and a 41-yard catch-and-run against Ohio State. Allen played more extensively as a sophomore, logging five starts and catching seven passes for 83 yards.
“That was the same way it was for me in high school,” Allen said. “My freshman year of high school, I was a lineman on the freshman team. I was a right tackle, No. 63. I was not a tight end. Then my sophomore year I started both ways. That was the kind of the way it was in college; it was a slow start my freshman year and sophomore year things picked up. I guess going into my junior year, junior year was the year I had my big year in high school and junior year is when I started to pick it up this past year.”
With Jack Stoll returning and Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek coming off his redshirt, 2020 looked to be another season in which Allen would have to wait his turn and contribute where he could. That changed in the season-opener when Stoll went down with a knee injury. The senior starter missed one game and played a limited role once he returned. That opened the door for Allen to take on more responsibility, and he rose to the occasion.
“It was very unfortunate Jack got a knee injury; that just kind of expedited the process a little bit of the leadership that I needed to take in the offense,” Allen said. “I think as a tight end room as a whole we filled those shoes pretty well, but there was still a lot of room to grow.”
Allen caught at least one pass in all eight games and had multiple catches in six of them, finishing with 18 receptions for 236 yards and one touchdown. This year, he wants more.
“Last year I think he took a back seat to Jack Stoll,” tight ends coach Sean Beckton said. “Jack has been the leader of our group. You can tell now that he’s really taken over the group, and he’s really emerged as one of our captains on offense. I don’t know how that’s going to play out later on, but since the first two days and all through winter conditioning, you could tell he was the guy that was organizing, leading the group . . . I see him emerging, being one of the leaders on the offensive side of the ball.”
That’s one of Allen’s big goals for this season: he wants to be a team captain. Adrian Martinez is the only captain returning from last season, and while plenty of veterans return on defense, offensive coordinator Matt Lubick is looking for new leaders to emerge on his side of the ball.
“It’s for sure something that I want to strive for,” Allen said. “Being an in-state kid, it means a lot to have your name on that board in that hallway in the stadium. To show all the people that helped me along the way to getting me to where I am, whether that be high school or college, it would be a good thing. A lot of stuff that’s happened to me in my life is a thanks to them. I think getting the accomplishment of captain is just a hat off to all of them.”
Allen has made a strong impression on his position coach, but it will be up to his teammates to vote him a captain, and he knows there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“It’s the way I come to practice every day,” Allen said. “It’s really the way I’ve tried to build the tight end room the last three years. It’s always been happening, they’ve seen how I work in the tight end room, they’ve seen how I work in the weight room, they’ve see how I work in practice. It’s really something that they should already see, but it’s something that I need to continue to take into practice . . . I’ve got to lead them in a way that they feel that I can lead this whole team as a captain.”
Beckton has Allen, Vokolek and a bunch of freshmen according to eligibility in his room, and Allen said his coach relied on the two upperclassmen this spring to bring along the younger guys, both on the practice field and in the meeting room.
Beckton was effusive in his praise for Allen during the spring, calling him an NFL player if he continues along the path that he’s on now.
“He’s an elite pass-catcher, route-runner,” Beckton said. “He really needs to continue to develop at the point-of-attack blocking. He’s really made a lot of strides over the last two years. Really, really exciting to see his strength gains translate to the field when we put the pads on.”
The weight room has played a significant role in Allen’s rise over the years. When he first got to campus, he weighed between 215 and 220 pounds. During the spring, he was at 255 pounds, which Beckton told him was a good number based on what he saw from the tight ends selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
“I wish I had understood sooner in high school how much correlation the weight room does have on the field,” Allen said, “Luckily I found it early on in college and it helped me put on 35 pounds. It’s all helped me; I can definitely tell the difference. From blocking the Blackshirt d-line my redshirt freshman year to now, I’m a fifth-year senior going and blocking those younger guys, and you can for sure tell the difference. It took me a year or two in college to understand how much it actually helped me, but I finally figured it out.”
Now a grizzled veteran, Allen is listed on the roster as a junior thanks to the NCAA’s pandemic-induced decision to freeze athletic eligibility during the 2020-21 academic year. However, he received his bachelor’s degree in mechanized systems management in May and isn’t really thinking about that extra year at the moment. He has goals to accomplish this year and his future already laid out in front of him.
“I need probably a good receiving and blocking year, a little bit better than last year if I want to get a chance at the NFL,” Allen said. “I’ll take the NFL if it’s there for sure. But I have a couple full-time jobs that have already reached out and offered me. So I have my career set up if I want it, and they all said that the job will always be there even if you go to the NFL and come back, so that was good to know. I need to give it my all this season for the NFL, and if that doesn’t happen then I’ve got those two jobs to fall back on. I think I’m in a good position right now.”
Part of that good position is the expectation for the tight end group heading into 2021. Beckton told his guys he expects them to be one of the top tight end units in the country, and for that to happen they need more passes thrown their way.
“I know Lubick’s been saying how he wants the tight ends to have a prominent role in this offense and we’ve got some good recruits here now,” Allen said. “Let’s show them what we can do as a tight end group. Just talking with Adrian on the side, he loves us, he loves our size, he loves our length, and I think he’s going to take advantage of that more. That’s nice to hear, not just from a coach but from our quarterback who’s actually running the offense.”
From the baseball diamond to the basketball court to the weight room to Memorial Stadium, Austin Allen’s journey has been long and winding. After biding his time during his first three years on campus, Allen broke out in 2020, and heading into 2021, he’s looking to make an even bigger impact on and off the field.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.