Two hundred and fifty six names were called, and Kyle Allen’s was not one of them.
Not that he necessarily expected it to be.
“I mean, I knew going into it I was probably going to go undrafted,” Allen said Wednesday during his first midweek news conference as the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback. “I mean, I knew. I got benched the third week of the season. I’m self-aware.”
Allen’s fall from the nation’s No. 1 high school quarterback to undrafted free agent in 2018 is well-documented. After a brief stint at Texas A&M, where he rotated playing time with eventual Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, Allen transferred to Houston and only played in four games. At that point, Allen had a decision to make:
Option 1, return to Houston and see if the situation would improve.
Option 2, transfer to a third college program and try to win the starting job.
Or option 3, go pro.
“I just kind of took a couple weeks to really think about it and weigh all these options out,” Allen said. “For me, I was just ready to bet on myself because I thought I had the ability. ... Even undrafted, just being signed, if I was given a chance to go and show in practice, go and show in training camp, go and show in preseason that I could play, that hopefully somebody will hold onto me.
“As an undrafted quarterback in this league, you have to keep betting on yourself because nobody else is going to.”
Allen obviously chose door No. 3 and subsequently watched 256 other players — some of whom are already out of the NFL — be chosen before him. Rather than let that eat away at him, or mope about being overlooked, Allen just took his next step in stride.
Of course, that’s much easier said than done. So is actually making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent. Both are excruciatingly difficult, as evidenced by the fact that the Panthers only have one such player — linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk — on this year’s roster. The point being, undrafted players may eventually develop over time like Mario Addison has, but early on in their careers?
Fat chance of them seeing the field, not to mention actually making an impact.
So, why Allen? What makes him, other than his background and upbringing, different?
“Guys I think that succeed as undrafted free agents are those guys that do exude confidence,” coach Ron Rivera said. “I think that’s one of the things that helps set him apart from guys when you watch him in practice. Just having watched him the last two training camps, you see it. He’s got a lot of confidence in his own ability.”
Confidence is one thing, sure. Allen has it, and considering he sent Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach an autographed picture of himself when he was 10, he always has. But confidence is immaterial without the ability to put your belief to the test.
You can’t prove anything if you can’t get on the field.
“It’s the hardest, man. That’s the art of it,” rookie passer Will Grier said. “It’s extremely tough, and I don’t think people realize that: how hard it is to prepare like a starter when you don’t get any reps.
“It’s just not the same. It doesn’t re-create what it actually is ... and then when your name is called, you have to step up and make the most of it.”
But Allen didn’t have to climb that whole mountain at once. He did it in chunks, small day hikes to the peak instead of a 24-hour all-or-nothing ordeal. It was four passes against Atlanta in Week 16 last season, then a start in an otherwise meaningless Week 17 win over New Orleans. So when the opportunity arose for a third time against Arizona on Sunday, after Cam Newton was officially ruled out with a mid-left foot sprain, it wasn’t so much proving as it was continuing to prove.
That’s why the Panthers weren’t all that surprised at Allen’s four-touchdown breakout.
He had done it before in steps, giving life to the confidence he’d always had inside.
“We spent a lot of time together over the last year and a half, so if anything, I was a guy just telling people what was gonna happen before it did,” said running back Reggie Bonnafon, who was an undrafted rookie with Allen in 2018. “He just has a good moxie about himself, and confidence. A cool demeanor at all times. That’s a guy you can follow.”
Confidence isn’t quantifiable. You can’t scoop it out in tablespoons and pour it into your Gatorade. It just is within you or not.
In Allen’s case, it is.
But that doesn’t mean he lets it consume him, bubble up and overflow. It quietly brews, and then it manifests in his right arm and fingertips come Sunday afternoons.
Because he has that self-belief, going undrafted was no great turmoil for him. And now, as Allen hopes to lead the Panthers back to .500 on Sunday against the Houston Texans, he’s actually able to use that marking — undrafted, unchosen — as a multiplier to his performance rather than a point of doubt.
“It’s ingrained in who I am,” Allen said of going undrafted. “Until you keep proving yourself, it’s a week-to-week thing. You have to show up every single day because you’re not going to get as many opportunities as everybody else.
“I think it’s shaped me.”
Really what he’s showing is that being passed up 256 times doesn’t mean he’s not capable.
“We’ve seen guys from all different walks — first-rounders to never drafted — so it’s not really about how people grade you or how good they think you are,” Grier said. “It’s about being ready when you have your opportunity, to win.”
Allen isn’t naive. He knows this opportunity can stop at any moment. Newton’s foot will take time to heal, but eventually, it will. Carolina’s franchise quarterback will again be asked to assume his role as the face of the Panthers, and Allen will go back to clipboard holding and sideline cheerleading.
When he does though, he’ll be different for this experience.
He’s always had the confidence in himself, but finally he’ll have the proof.
“I don’t really think about drafted or undrafted — I look at guys who play the game the right way,” Allen said. “Obviously, down the road I want to become an established player in this league, but I know what got me here. I understand my story and the things that I went through got me to this point today, and it’s going to keep getting me where I want to go.”