- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The true assessment for Michigan State's Jack Allen doesn't come during games but immediately after them.
After the clock expires, Allen, the Spartans' 6-foot-1, 300-pound junior center, heads to midfield with his teammates for the traditional postgame exchange with their opponent. He will look for the defensive players with whom he mashed plastic, metal, skin and bone for three-plus hours. If they approach him with right hands extended, he'll reciprocate.
Deep down, he hopes they look the other way.
"If the other guy at the end of the game shakes my hand, I didn't do a good enough job," Allen told ESPN.com. "There were a few games where defensive tackles and linebackers didn't want to see me ever again.
"I've done my job when they don't want to go out there any more."
The postgame escape, in Allen's mind, is football's version of tapping out, a term he knows well as a state champion wrestler in high school.
Allen was a three-time all-state wrestler at Hinsdale Central High School in Illinois, winning the Class 3A state title at 285 pounds as a senior. He holds Hindsale Central's record for career wins (143) and had second-place finishes at the state meet as a junior and a sophomore.
The success on the mat has shaped Allen's approach on the field: You’re going to get beat up, but come back tomorrow so you can get beat up a little less. When a guy’s not as good, you’re supposed to beat him bad. You try to pound everybody.
"Just finishing plays," MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten said, "to the last vibration of the whistle."
Allen helped Michigan State finish its best season in decades with Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships in December and January. After starting 12 games as a redshirt freshman at center and left guard, Allen solidified himself at center in 2013, starting the final 12 games for a line that limited sacks (17, tied for third-fewest in the league) and wore down opponents late in games.
He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors (media) and recorded 68 knockdowns.
"He was the bulldozer," Staten said, "the guy that kept things going, brought that bit of nastiness every single play. He cannot stand to lose; it doesn't matter if it's a play, a series or a game.
"As combative as he is with the wrestling, it just suited us."
Allen's approach traces to the mat, where his bloodlines run deep: his father, John, wrestled at Purdue in the early 1980s; uncle Jim Zajicek wrestled and played football at Northwestern and coached Jack at Hinsdale Central; younger brothers Brian and Matt both wrestle. Brian Allen not only has followed his brother's wrestling success, winning the Class 3A 285-pound title as a junior, when he went 48-0, but will play center at MSU. Brian arrived on campus Monday and will live two blocks from Jack. He'll wear No. 65 for the Spartans and occupy the locker next to Jack's (No. 66).
John Allen didn't push his sons toward wrestling. He simply wanted them expending their endless energy in some athletic endeavor, mainly to spell their mother, Leslie. "He wanted to give my mom some time to get away from all the nuts-ness," Jack said. The boys played everything -- basketball, baseball, soccer -- but gravitated toward two: wrestling and football.
"We never played any soft sports," Jack said. "It was always contact."
John Allen, a self-described "wrestling homer," sees parallels between wrestling and football, especially when he watches his eldest son. The emphasis on balance, the importance of the first step and hand position and mental toughness translate between the sports.
"Every time you snap the football," John said, "it's like a wrestling match for the first couple seconds."
Wrestling undoubtedly prepared Jack for Big Ten football, but it wasn't his only driver.
Just 215 pounds as a high school sophomore, Allen didn't find himself on the football radar for major college teams. He wanted to play at a Big Ten school, but for a while, wrestling seemed like his ticket to get there. He didn't start to gain weight until he was a junior, when then-MSU assistant Dan Roushar began targeting him.
"If I had a nickel for every guy who told me he was too small I could buy a lot of coffee," John Allen said. "I was grateful that Coach [Mark] Dantonio gave him a chance, but it came later for him. People kind of passed over him."
Allen's top goal last season was to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. He came up short. His second goal: to play with a chip on his shoulder and never get pushed around.
"A lot of people didn't believe he could do what he's trying to do," John Allen said. "He plays kind of angry. Sometimes, it's scary."
It's also what Michigan State's offensive line needs.
Dantonio has built the program on an aggressive, stifling defense that consistently ranks in the top 10 nationally. But few Big Ten programs take the next step with an unremarkable offensive line, which MSU had until last year.
"We're going to hit you and keep on hitting you," Spartans tackle Jack Conklin said. "Teams start to give up after you beat them up so many times, and it starts from [Allen]."
MSU returns quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and almost all of its top offensive skill players from the Rose Bowl team. But the Spartans lose three line starters, including guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain.
To maintain the standard, Allen needs an even better season. He improved from the neck up this spring, diagnosing safety depth, linebacker alignment and any tells from the down linemen while making all the line calls for MSU.
"We go as he goes, I always tell him," Staten said. "He's our physicality, he's our mentality and he's our attitude."
Allen embraces the increased responsibility.
"I need to have a lot of good days," he said, "to do what we want to do this year."
Good days for Allen consist of two things: Spartans victories and no handshakes afterward.
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