Plenty of newcomers have made an impact on the Winston-Salem State football program thus far, but the consensus is one player has stood out above the rest.
Kalen Allen, a linebacker who transferred from Western Carolina, has jumped at his chance to fill a void on the defense. At 6-foot and 250 pounds, Allen fits in perfectly with the new 4-2-5 defense installed by interim head coach Robert Massey.
“That guy can really move out there,” said Massey, who is also the secondary coach. “He’s come in and has done everything we’ve asked of him, and I think he really likes what we are trying to do on defense.”
Allen didn’t find a lot of playing time at Western Carolina last season, and he said he looked to transfer while trying to find the right fit.
“I could have maybe gone to another Division I program, but then I’d have to sit out,” Allen said about the Division I transfer rules. “I really just wanted to come to a place to enjoy myself with the total experience of school and football, and I knew Coach Massey pretty well so I talked with him about coming here.”
Allen, who is a graduate of Charlotte Mallard Creek, has been making big hits in practice as he and fellow sophomore Ta’Shaun Taylor have jumped to the front of the depth chart at linebacker. Marvin Bohannon, the linebackers coach, loves how Allen plugs holes with his tackling ability but also can cover wide receivers when necessary.
“He’s made an impact already, and he’s a thumper,” said Bohannon, who was a hard-hitting safety 10 years ago during his playing days at WSSU. “He can really hit and he's been showing it in practice. Over the years here at Winston-Salem State, we’ve had a history of good linebackers who could hit and cover, and Kalen fits that.
“In the CIAA there are a lot of running teams, and Kalen can make all the plays we need in our scheme.”
Allen also had contact with Natrone Means, the running backs coach, while deciding where to transfer. Means, a former NFL running back and North Carolina star, said something to Allen that made a lot of sense.
“Coach Means said, ‘Football is football, and it doesn’t matter if you are at Alabama or at a Division II school like Winston-Salem State, the field is 100 yards, and it’s still just football,’" Allen said. "When Coach Means said that, it really hit home, so after I visited here, I knew this is where I wanted to be."
Allen had a 3.0 grade point average during his year at Western Carolina and plans to major in computer information technology at WSSU.
When he was looking around for a college, he also considered Fayetteville State, where his uncle is the athletics director.
“I had family that came here and my uncle (Anthony Bennett) used to work here as an assistant athletics director,” Allen said. “He did want me to come to Fayetteville State, but it felt like home at Winston-Salem State.”
Bennett has been the successful athletics director at Fayetteville State, which is his alma mater. The Broncos have won the last two Southern Division titles, which snapped WSSU's run of seven straight division titles that started in 2010.
The Rams have a few more days of practice before their opener at UNC Pembroke on Sept. 5, and they're scheduled to scrimmage Saturday at 2 p.m. at their practice field.
WSSU has a long history of linebackers who excelled. Some of those names in recent years include Alton Keaton, Carlos Fields, Daniel Mungin and last year’s two starters, Jayron Rankin and Pat Green.
Rankin and Green, a former North Forsyth standout, exhausted their eligibility and were among the team's top tacklers last season.
Bohannon, who was one of the last coaches hired by Massey, arrived at WSSU’s first practice not sure what the talent level was at linebacker. He quickly found out what Allen could do.
“I saw him the first day of practice, and I knew,” Bohannon said. “As agile as he was and how explosive he was I could see it right away that we can use him.”
Bohannon said as a new coach with the Rams he had an open mind about what kind of player he wanted to see on the field for the Rams.
“I’m not here to play favoritism because I’m the newest coach here,” Bohannon said. “So the best players are going to play, and Allen is going to play a lot. He’s been performing every day and he plays hard and wants to improve.”
Bohannon even went so far as to predict that Allen has a chance to be All-CIAA this season provided he stays healthy. Allen loves how he and Taylor have moved into the two linebacker positions.
“Right now we have a lot of veterans with the defensive backs but with our linebackers we are just sophomores so I feel like our defense can be really strong,” Allen said. “We just need to bring it together and that’s what these next two weeks will be all about.”