Standing 5-foot-7, 192 pounds and coming off a serious knee injury, Mark Allen has heard it all. He's heard about being too small. He's heard the worries about his knee. He's seen two other running backs with more stars and scholarship offers also sign with Penn State. And since he signed his letter of intent, two more four-star running backs from the next class have verbally committed.
He's aware of it all, and when he arrives at Penn State in June, he'll be coming with a chip on his shoulder.
"I feel like people have been doubting me, and I just feel like I have a lot to prove," Allen said. "I've been working hard, so I think I'm going to prove everyone wrong. All the doubters - I'm going to make [them] into believers."
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This isn't anything new for Allen. Playing his high school football at the storied DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., Allen has had to scratch and claw for playing time ever since he hit the varsity level. He was in the same class as Taiwan Deal, a four-star running back who signed with Wisconsin, but he still managed to earn enough touches to prove to his coach, Elijah Brooks, that "he has the explosiveness to break a play whenever."
"Competition is very big at DeMatha," Allen said. "So I feel like at Penn State, it's just going to be more competition that I have to overcome. If I want to play, I just have to work my butt off to get into that position."
Allen has been thinking for a while about the challenge that lies ahead at Penn State. He's close friends with current tight end Brent Wilkerson, and like Wilkerson, Allen had dreamed of becoming a Nittany Lion since he began playing football.
Allen camped at PSU before his junior season and reportedly ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash. That performance, along with the approach he took during drills, made a strong initial impression on Bill O'Brien and his staff. Running backs coach Charles London pulled him aside to talk during the camp, and O'Brien caught up with him afterward for a one-on-one chat.
"O'Brien told me he'd [scout] me for the first five games of my 11th-grade year," Allen recalled, "and my first five games were good."
He tallied 517 yards during that span and, as promised, an offer from O'Brien shortly followed. Allen committed on Oct. 16, 2012, becoming the first member of Penn State's Class of 2014. And although O'Brien left this past January, Allen had no misgivings about faxing his letter of intent to a new coach, James Franklin. "I have a lot of pride in that," he said. "I'm happy, honestly. Words can't really explain it. I know this class is going to do big things."
But shortly after committing in the fall of his junior season, Allen tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and missed the remainder of the season and most of his senior season, too. Rivals.com downgraded him from a three-star prospect to a two-star.
Allen was reported to be fully healthy as of early March. He was participating in track, he said, "and doing a lot of speed and agility work, trying to get my speed back, and just preparing myself to make a difference."
Due to the injury and the coaching change, Allen wasn't sure the offer he had received from O'Brien would remain on the table. The change had admittedly caught him off-guard.
"O'Brien called me that night and told me [he's leaving] and I said, 'Congratulations, Coach, I hope to play for you in the future,' " Allen said. "It was hectic, but I felt that I didn't commit to just one person. I felt like I had a connection with Penn State, so I had to stick to it and fight through it."
When Allen was able to talk with Franklin and new offensive coordinator John Donovan, he was reassured that he continues to be in Penn State's game plan.
"[Donovan] showed me the playbook and how everything is going to work out, and I felt like I'm going to fit into it," he said. "He said he rotates three backs and the hottest man plays the most. So of course I plan on being that hottest man."
And it's the doubters who will fuel his fire.