It’s just as much, if not more, about those sleepers from smaller schools who have toiled under the radar and away from the eyes of most of the experts.
This year, perhaps the most intriguing member of the Underrated Club is tight end Michael Allan from tiny Division III Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. The journey he’s made from underappreciated, small and slow receiver to rising future draftee mentioned this week as a potential breakout small-schooler by at least three recognized experts is a fascinating one, and well worth telling as Allan’s stock continues to rise.
A graduate of Bellevue’s Interlake High School, Allan related on Thursday from the floor of the Combine media room that he started his collegiate career as a “maybe” at best. “Believe it or not, I was only 6'4", 190. I was an awkward kid coming out of high school,” said Allan, who has recently measured as high as 6’7” and 264 pounds. “I played receiver. I only ran like a 5-flat (40-yard time). So I wasn’t exactly a top prospect. Then my body matured when I got into college and I grew from there.”
Matured, indeed. As Allan’s ability and acumen developed, so did his build – he was gaining 15-20 pounds of solid muscle every year during his time at Whitworth. By his junior year in 2005, he was named to the AFCA Division III All-America Team after catching 36 passes for 693 yards – an incredible 19.2 yards per catch – and a school record 15 touchdown receptions. That record, by the way, had been held by Doug Long, a tight end who played with the Seahawks from 1976 through 1978. “After my junior year, after I had gotten (AFCA Division III) All-American, a couple of scouts came out in the spring to time me, and I found out right around Christmas time that they were going to come test me. That’s kind of when I realized I’ve got a real shot at this.”
As he rounded into his senior year, and thoughts of transferring to Washington State to be better exposed to the eyes of pro scouts were well behind him, (“I realized I could still make it if I just had the good numbers, which I was thankful to have”), Allan knew that whatever he did, it would be seen. And if he was able to capitalize on the progress he had made, his dream of a chance to play the NFL would be forwarded.
His senior season erased all doubts that he was a one-year wonder, as Allan caught 53 passes for 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns. The records and awards began to pile in, as he led the Northwest Conference in touchdown receptions and yards per catch with a 20.8 average. Setting school records for touchdown receptions with 29, and yards per catch with 18.7, Allan was named to the AP Little All-America First Team, the AFCA Division III All-America team once again, and the D3football.com All-America First Team. IN 2006, Whitworth went 11-1, win its first Northwest Conference title and Allan helped lead Whitworth to its first-ever 10+ win season (11-1), first outright Northwest Conference title and acquired its first postseason win, with a 27-23 triumph over Occidental.
Then, it was up to Allan to overcome the small-school bias many of those sleepers must get past. When asked of Division III competition was so sub-par that knowing how he’d do against brighter lights (as opposed to lining up against the 5’10”, 220-pound linebackers some assume are the only kind he saw) would be impossible, Allan was happy to try and burst that bubble. “Division III is not as small as everybody thinks, he said. “That’s another reason I’m happy to be here, just to kind of show that guys at this level can play. There definitely were some smaller players. But when we started playing some East Coast teams, and Division III is a lot bigger on the East Coast, I’d see guys that are 6-2, 220, 230. There definitely are some good athletes.”
Another reason Allan was asked to attend the Combine was his performance in the East-West Shrine game, when a strong week of practice showed those in attendance that a kid who can catch the ball and run against some of the best college players, was one to watch no matter where he came from. “Well, the game itself didn’t go as planned,” Allan said. “I didn’t make any catches. But the week, I had a great week of practice and made some good plays and made some good blocks. I held my own against those guys and proved I’m supposed to be there and I’m meant to be at this level.”
After his Combine performance on Saturday, the experts seem to agree. He led all tight ends with a 10’3” broad jump, and finished second in two other categories - a 36” vertical behind Derek Schouman of Boise State, and his officially-timed 4.71 behind Miami’s Greg Olsen.
“Allan definitely helped himself here in terms of actually allowing scouts to see him move, but he was timed at a 4.67 in the spring and his speed and overall athleticism was known,” NFLDraftScout.com Senior Draft Analyst Rob Rang told Seahawks.NET. “We have him as a solid 6-7(th round pick) and with this weak tight end class, I could see him moving into even the late 4th to 5th based on how he performed here and at the East-West Shrine Game.”
Mike Mayock, the NFL Network’s primary draft analyst, made a point to mention Allan as one of the players who raised his stock most during Saturday’s testing. "The kid from Whitworth really helped himself,” Mayock said from the podium during the Saturday afternoon media sessions. “Michael Allan ran in the 4.6s. I think it was a 4.65 officially. He caught the football well, he jumped well, and for a kid that is a non-Division-I athlete and the only Division III athlete invited here, it's important. You don't get anywhere near as much time in front of people around the league if you are a non-IA player. A kid like that really stepped up and helped himself today."
Ryan Rigmaiden, one of Seahawks.NET’s draft experts and a Spokane resident, has seen more of Allan than most. “He became a physically imposing force, all the while maintaining the hands, speed and quickness to dominate the NWC,” Rigmaiden recently wrote. “Coach John Tully immediately saw the mismatches he created and took full advantage of it, lining Allan up all over the field. Whether it was playing the “X” or “Z” in five-wide sets or playing with his hand down in double-tight sets, Allan flourished. The honors and awards started pouring in, and so did the NFL scouts.”
With Whitworth’s predilection for running five-wide sets, and Allan’s receiving background, some might be concerned that his blocking ability lags behind. While Rang has told us that Allan “is only a marginal blocker due to a lack of strength, technique and time in a traditional tight end role,” Allan is eyeing progress down the road. “We did a lot of run (plays at Whitworth),” Allan said. “We tried to keep it 50/50. So I have done a lot of run blocking and I have improved, and the nice thing is I’m still improving.”
Still improving every day. Now, the world knows it. All the experts are seemingly in line, and this year’s sleeper has taken hold. For Michael Allan, the future is a wide horizon of exciting possibilities, built on a past of hard work and solid, nationally unheralded growth.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a contributor to FoxSports.com. Feel free to contact him here.