Carolina Panthers

Knowing QB1 belongs to Cam Newton made Kyle Allen ready to be Panthers’ starter

Preordained does not mean predetermined.

What’s the difference?

Consider the case of Kyle Allen, the Carolina Panthers’ backup quarterback. In the eyes of almost every recruiting service, Allen was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in his high school class. He had the highlight reel. The hype. Certainly the hysteria from Texas A&M fans, all desperate for him to become their next Heisman Trophy winner. And after throwing for over 8,000 yards and 86 touchdowns at Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Arizona, it makes sense why.

All of that counts as preordained.

But it never came to fruition.

Allen was an off-and-on starter at A&M, including a self-described “fluid” sophomore season where he briefly split time with Arizona Cardinals starter Kyler Murray. Both ended up transferring out: Murray to Oklahoma, Allen to Houston. Murray set records and won the Heisman so many expected Allen to capture, leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in the process. Meanwhile, Allen played just four games at Houston and again ended up on the bench.

Murray eventually parlayed that college success into the No. 1 overall draft spot in April. Allen declared for the NFL after that one middling year at Houston. That was always his dream — and his only option.

So much for a predetermined destiny.

“That was the first real football adversity I’d felt,” Allen said this week. “In high school, it was a breeze. So I think I needed to feel some adversity to make myself better.”

Allen found his way just fine. This week, with Cam Newton nursing an injured foot and unlikely to play, Allen is expected to get his second career start — it’s gravy on top that it comes in his hometown, and against his former teammate.

And as it turns out, maybe Allen is the better for not hitting those predetermined marks. Maybe, for all the strife and struggle that led him to this point, that’s exactly what he needed to finally take hold of this opportunity.

“You have those ups, you have those downs and you learn a lot about yourself,” Allen said. “All that crap that I went through in college — and even here, getting released last year — I think you just build that resolve. Build that confidence. And no one can really take that from you.

“You’re not really pulling your confidence from anywhere else — you’re pulling it from yourself. That’s something I hold onto really tight.”

‘My cocky 10-year-old butt’ did what?

That’s not to say Allen wasn’t confident growing up.

His father Mike worked for the Fiesta Bowl and over time, got to be friendly with Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach. Staubach even sent 10-year-old Kyle an autographed photo of himself. How’d Allen respond?

“My cocky 10-year-old butt sent him back a signed picture of myself,” Allen said this week as a wide grin broke out on his face.

Maybe that seems silly, but Allen has always believed in himself as a player. And as Panthers tight end Greg Olsen pointed out this week, that sort of self-belief is a prerequisite to being an NFL quarterback.

“To get to this level at that position is a journey all in and of itself,” Olsen said. “The moment’s not too big for him. He’s not somebody that we have to go out there and really handcuff and spoon-feed him the offense.”

Perhaps the Panther who has known Allen is longest is running back Christian McCaffrey. As high school seniors, he and Allen were on the same 2014 U.S. Army All-American team, and they stayed in touch since then. A number of Panthers — including receiver Curtis Samuel and rookie quarterback Will Grier — played in that same game, but McCaffrey and Allen were teammates.

“He’s always been the same guy,” McCaffrey said. “From what I remember and what I know about Kyle, is that he’s a heck of a competitor ... I know what he can do. I know that he can play.”

‘Always knew I had it in me’

There’s a fair question still out there about Allen:

So what if he was a high school star — If he couldn’t hold a starting job in college, why do the Panthers have any faith in him?

“I think the best thing I can tell you to do is go look at our last game of the season last year,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “That’s how we expect him to play.”

Turner is referencing Week 17 against the New Orleans Saints, after Newton had already been shut down for the year and then-backup Taylor Heinicke had suffered a season-ending injury of his own. Allen — who the team had already cut once that season off the practice squad — earned his first career start almost entirely by default, after having only been called up to the active roster before Week 16.

Practice squad to starter in a week.

“It was all so fast,” Allen said. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m in an NFL game. I was on my couch eight weeks ago.’”

Allen delivered, hanging 23 first-half points against the Saints’ first-team defense (New Orleans had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the postseason). He ended the day with 228 passing yards and two touchdowns, plus a third rushing.

“This year, it’s more like, I’ve been preparing for this,” Allen said. “This is my job. I’m a No. 2 quarterback. If I have to go in and play, this is literally what I get paid for.

“This is what I’m here to do.”

That one game is exactly that. One game. A confidence boost.

But Allen doesn’t necessarily need that. He knows what it’s like to be beloved, and he knows the opposite just as well. He’s been the sought-after hotshot and the afterthought — even within the span of a week.

What he’s maintained throughout is a sense of self. He knows he belongs, and no matter anyone’s doubts or his own obscurity, he’s going to play the same regardless.

“I think that’s what sets the good ones apart, is that they have confidence in themselves and their abilities,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Secondly, they don’t let little detailed things bother them, faze them ... That’s one thing (with him), it’s just like water off a duck’s back. It just goes.

“I would not be surprised to see him come out and play confident again.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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