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BOSTON (CBS) — Late in the third quarter of last Thursday’s preseason encounter with the New York Giants, in what very well could have been the final game of his brief career as a New England Patriot, rookie punter Ryan Allen was given his first opportunity of the evening to make a lasting — if not last — impression.
Allen had arrived in Foxborou in the spring as an undrafted free agent out of Louisiana Tech, trying to outkick the long odds of unseating veteran incumbent Zoltan Mesko. Through three games of the preseason, Allen remained among the 75 players on a Patriots roster that would soon be missing 22 names.
Fielding a snap from New England’s 42-yard line, Allen angled his punt toward the New York sideline. With just enough distance and exactly the right direction, it went out at the Giants’ 8-yard line.
That kick alone wasn’t what eventually earned Allen one of 53 roster spots for the regular season opener. He showed off a strong left leg throughout training camp and, as widely reported, will be paid far less than a fourth-year pro like Mesko. But it perfectly epitomizes a youngster literally — and figuratively — stepping forward to seize his chance.
Allen started his collegiate career at Oregon State. After standing idle for two seasons behind future St. Louis Ram Johnny Hekker, he transferred to Louisiana Tech. In 2012, Allen became the Bulldogs’ first unanimous All-American and earned the Ray Guy Award, as college football’s top punter, for a second straight year.
As a senior, he averaged a school-record 48.0 yards per punt, including an 85-yarder at New Mexico State. Though unpicked in the draft, Allen attracted interest from several NFL teams before joining the Patriots on May 5.
“There were a few teams I worked out for (before the draft), and after the draft there were a few I talked to,” Allen explained on Monday. “But after talking to coach (Joe) Judge and coach (Scott) O’Brien here, it seemed like a great fit with their tradition and their past. Sometimes you just got to go with your gut feeling, and that’s what it was.”
Such tradition for the Patriots was created by a succession of left-footed punters, like both Allen and Mesko, whose 44.2 career average is the second-highest in franchise history. A native of Romania, Mesko also heavily involved himself in charitable work. Last year, he was honored with the team’s Ron Burton Community Service Award.
Not surprisingly, Mesko was giving of time and advice to Allen, even if the kid was trying to take his job. But more important than anything said is what Mesko did.
“When I’m new to a situation, I’m all eyes and ears. Especially eyes,” said Allen, who also acknowledges tutelage from place kicker Stephen Gostkowski. “I’m a visual learner, so just watching (Mesko) hold (for the kicker), just watching his mechanics and just watching the way he and Steve carry themselves around the locker room, take care of their bodies (and) everything like that (was helpful).
“Obviously, these guys have been successful at what they’ve done. They’re doing something right.”
On Friday, before the Patriots reduced their roster to 53, the team’s current and former punters exchanged well wishes.
“We talked the night before and (said) it was great working with one another and, regardless of what happened, we wished the best for one another,” Allen said of Mesko, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers a few days later. “I love Zoltan. I couldn’t thank him enough for being open and being welcoming when I came in here. I have nothing but great things to say about him.”
Thankfully for Allen, his debut as Mesko’s successor takes place in Buffalo while the summer breeze still blows off Lake Erie. Bring up Ralph Wilson Stadium to some Patriot staffers and you’ll hear about the 75 mph gusts that tilted the stadium’s goal posts in December 2008.
On Sunday, it figures the uprights should stay that way. As for Allen, who also assumes Mesko’s other role holding for Gostowski, he expects his hands to be as steady.
“It’s all about rhythm and timing with all of us and we’re getting solid already,” he says, after working extensively with long snapper Danny Aiken. “I’m looking forward to it. I feel confident back there and it’s going to go smoothly.”