Kenny Allen has tasted stardom.
As the rare player who could handle both kicking and punting duties with aplomb and as a Michigan boy starting for Jim Harbaugh's super-hyped college football machine, he was living big this time last year.
But he harbored no illusions that the luster of his college days would translate to an immediate starting job in the NFL. Allen is, after all, a kicker. And life is rarely that straightforward for his kind.
So here Allen stands on a balmy June morning in Owings Mills, taking copious mental notes on the activities of Ravens punter Sam Koch and Ravens placekicker Justin Tucker, aka two guys he has zero chance of beating out for a roster spot.
Allen, who turned 23 on Saturday, is essentially in graduate school. He's learning the intricacies of a craft he'd only barely begun to master in college. And he's hoping the sterling reputation of the Ravens special teams program will earn him a longer look in a different NFL city. This isn't a far-fetched notion. It worked for New Orleans Saints placekicker Wil Lutz just last season.
In the middle of a photo shoot Wednesday afternoon at the
Allen, who's primarily working as a punter with the Ravens, understands exactly what he's doing in Baltimore.
"You look at the track record they have for special teams here, the coaches they have, the guys they have here, is there a better staff and better group in the country?" he says. "Being able to learn from those guys and take those types of things in, it's the best thing I could ask for. You look at the track record of guys in recent years who came though and learned. Now they're off with other teams living their dreams."
Koch and Tucker, in turn, embrace their roles as professors, even if teaching a rookie free agent isn't their primary concern.
"First and foremost is making sure we get ready," Koch says. "But the time that we have left to spend with him, we want him to succeed just as much as we want ourselves to succeed. I think what we provide here is we pay attention to every detail. I'm not sure what people do everywhere else, but we have one of the greatest kicking coaches in Randy Brown. And he'll cut up the film to a T to make sure we're doing every single thing with the best technique possible."
Adds Tucker: "I think we do an excellent job of being scrutinous in our work to where, when one of us sees something, we say something. We talk about it, and no one's opposed to constructive criticism. Especially for rookies, it's a rite of passage. You have to break them down to build them back up."
Tucker went through it himself, sitting in an office with Brown and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg as they picked apart his technique for 2 1/2 hours on his second day of training camp in 2012.
"I think Kenny's doing a great job of buying in," the All-Pro kicker says. "And that's what important."
The lanky, 6-foot-3 Allen acts as Koch's shadow, watching every step the 11-year -veteran takes on the practice field.
"For a punter coming in, you've got the obvious, the best example of what it means to be a professional in Sam," Tucker says. "He's got a refined, specific technique that he's worked on for years. You get to benefit from seeing that every day, and you have to take advantage of it."
Pipeline to the pros
Rosburg keeps an eye out for talented young kickers and punters in all corners of the football world. He prides himself on teaching them up, regardless of their job prospects in Baltimore. His rigor paid off in a big way in 2012, when the Ravens signed Tucker as an undrafted free agent out of Texas and the rookie beat out Billy Cundiff. Tucker, of course, has become the best kicker in the league and a cornerstone player for the franchise.
Before Tucker there was Steven Hauschka, an undrafted free agent who'd kicked for one year as a graduate student at North Carolina State. The Ravens brought him in to share duties with Matt Stover and he eventually became a Pro Bowl kicker for the Seattle Seahawks.
Graham Gano and Robbie Gould also spent time with the Ravens before going on to become long-term starters in other cities.
Lutz's experience last year loomed large for Allen when he chose a team. The Ravens signed Lutz out of Georgia State and kept him around almost all summer before waiving him Aug. 29. From there, they pivoted immediately to helping him get a job somewhere else. Coach John Harbaugh praised him to Saints counterpart Sean Payton when the teams played each other in their final preseason contest. Brown, one of the most respected kicking gurus in the sport, also worked the phones on the rookie's behalf.
New Orleans gave him a tryout and when he nailed it, they released veteran Kai Forbath. Lutz went on to make 28 of 34 field goals and earn All-Rookie honors.
He often gushed about his summer apprenticeship with the Ravens.
"To be going [to Baltimore] was the best thing that's happened to me," he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Through the whole process they told me, if you're not our guy, you're going to be someone else's. I trusted them. I did everything they taught me to do."
Such results have become points of pride for the Ravens, even if they don't directly benefit the team on the field.
"We're sitting here trying to create another kicker in this league," Koch says. "And we look at that as an accomplishment. You look at a Wil Lutz. Most of that's done by him and his talent and his willingness to listen. But we're looking to take what we know and give it to younger guys."
Allen has already lived through versions of his current challenge.
He walked on at Michigan rather than accept a scholarship at Oregon State or one of several Mid-American Conference schools. And he surprised himself by earning his first starts as a placekicker rather than as a punter, the position at which he'd earned more accolades coming out of high school. Sometimes, he was trying to take snaps from established scholarship players and others, he was trying to ward off competition from unexpected corners.
Before he was old enough to drink legally, he learned the importance of flexibility and adaptability in the modern job market. It was a sort of football facsimile of the landscape millennials face in almost every industry.
"I mean, it's not the dream choice — uncertainty," he says. "But you just have to accept it and control what you can control."
Internship in progress
Allen seems blown away by the level of detail that goes into NFL kicking. Koch, through relentless experimentation, has mastered a dizzying array of spins he employs to trap opposing returners inside the 20-yard line. On field goals, Tucker, Koch (the holder) and long snapper Morgan Cox have every part of their routine broken down to the millisecond.
For a rookie, it's the equivalent of jumping from college calculus to working at the Applied Physics Laboratory.
"They pay attention perfectly to details," he says. "Over and over and over, the exact same motions. It's incredible. We had better teaching than a lot of other schools at Michigan, but it wasn't anything like what it is here. I've probably learned more about punting here than I had in my entire life before."
Allen has earned strong reviews through the early part of his internship.
"The reason he's making good progress is because he really works at it," Rosburg says. "He's working at it in every meeting, watches film analytically, and he listens to his veteran specialists — Sam [Koch] in particular, since Kenny is a punter. … Sam is secure in his own mind, so what he's teaching is valuable."
Says Koch: "The kid's excellent. If I think about where I was at the same point, there's no chance I'd be in the league today."
All involved hope Allen will end up starting somewhere and become another cog in the Ravens' extended special teams machine.
Rosburg knows that when he goes looking for the next gifted kicker to bring to camp in 2018, he won't exactly have to scramble to make his pitch.
"I'll let others decide what the best school is, but we just point toward the guys that have been here and the success they've had and let that take care of itself," he says. "They typically call the guys that have been here, and that's helpful."
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