David Cloninger, GamecockCentral.com
Antonio Allen didn't have time to talk with the media this week.
Just as well -- why mess with a winning streak?
"He's been great," spurs coach Shane Beamer said on Monday. "He's been active, he's played with a lot more confidence. Antonio's made a lot of plays when he's been out there."
That's putting it extremely lightly.
Allen has been a driving force behind South Carolina's massively improved defensive play, posting a five-week stretch that many dream about. Over the past five games (Tennessee to Clemson), Allen has had 34 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, three pass break-ups, three quarterback hurries, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble and one interception.
The last is what everybody is remembering as the No. 18 Gamecocks prepare for an SEC Championship Game showdown with second-ranked Auburn. Allen ran in front of a wounded-duck pass from Clemson's Kyle Parker last week, caught it and ran 37 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.
It was USC's sixth defensive touchdown of the year, and fifth in the last five games.
"Sometimes, he drops those, but he caught that one," coach Steve Spurrier said. "Antonio Allen has turned into a really good strong safety."
An up-and-down preseason and an injury docked Allen the starting spur spot in the first three games, as sophomore Damario Jeffery rose up the depth chart. The two have a healthy and friendly competition, Beamer said, but once Allen got back into the starting lineup against Auburn on Sept. 25, he didn't leave it.
"What he's doing, he's playing spur first every time," Beamer said. "He's our dime also on third down. He's really having to learn two positions. He's doing both, doing it well."
The Gamecocks' early-season problems on pass defense had the secondary playing far off their receivers at the line. The spur, playing between linebacker and cornerback, was part of that.
Since the Tennessee game, USC has placed the spur much closer to the line. Allen has benefited, able to chip in as a run-stopper and fill up an extra passing lane before the receiver gets too far downfield.
And it always helps when his name and number are being called out, tackle after tackle and play after play.
"I think we're playing him more, so he's getting more comfortable with knowing what to do," Lorenzo Ward said, "and we've been trying to keep it simple for him, not just him, but all the defense. Like I said last week, we keep it simple, we play fast."
Jeffery has also played, but has not started since the Furman game. He said during the spring that he loved the camaraderie he and Allen share, despite battling for the same position, and would continue pushing Allen for the spot even if it was clear that Allen had it.
"Antonio's a very good guy," Jeffery said then. "If he starts ahead of me, then he beat me out for it. I try to push him every day, he's going to push me."
Perhaps that's the reason why Allen has been on fire. Jeffery is one of the team's best natural athletes and is considered one of the stars of the future.
"Antonio is a competitor," Ward said. "Any young man who plays this game, you don't want to lose any plays to someone else if you're a competitor. I'm sure he took it personal."
"Damario feels the same way now that Antonio's getting all the reps," Beamer agreed. "They both want to be out there, they both deserve to be out there. They're both making each other better."
Allen spoke to the media just before the Florida game, trying to explain what had happened in a meltdown to Arkansas the week before. "We're going to be more focused this week, I can guarantee you that," he said then.
Speaking for himself, no question if that's been accomplished.
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