Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Nate Allen isn't exactly sure why he didn't seem like himself last season. But the most important thing now is, the South Florida safety is playing at his highest level.
The senior leads the Bulls in tackles (29) and has two interceptions, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was all over the field defensively in South Florida's wins over Florida State and Syracuse and will be a major key in the attempt to stop Cincinnati's high-powered passing game on Thursday night.
"He makes big plays and shows up time and time again," linebacker Kion Wilson said. "It's always encouraging to have a guy like that on your defense."
Allen is back to his sophomore year form, when he registered 84 tackles, four interceptions and three fumble recoveries. He turned two of those turnovers into touchdowns.
Last season, as the entire Bulls' secondary took a step back, Allen had just one interception, wasn't involved in any fumbles and finished with 17 fewer tackles in one more game played. His one turnover was a big one, however; it came in the fourth quarter against Kansas to set up the game-winning field goal.
"I don't know what it was," he says. "I don't know if I have more focus with this being my last year or what. But everything is coming together this year, and everything is working out."
Allen has long been viewed as an NFL prospect with his size (6-foot-2, 207 pounds) and athleticism. But that's only half his story, defensive coordinator Joe Tresey says.
"He's a coach's dream," Tresey said. "He comes to work every day and everything is 100 miles per hour. He's very focused on and off the field, he lives right and it's very important to him."
Allen is the guy who calls out all the checks in the South Florida secondary. He knows just when to break on a ball, as evidenced by his pair of picks at Syracuse. And he's not afraid to lay out for a hit.
"He's always around the ball and is a clutch player," defensive end George Selvie said. "He's really getting physical out there with some big hits. I haven't seen much of that out of him the last few years, but now he's getting out there and putting his body into it."
All of Allen's ability will be needed against Cincinnati and its fleet of receivers, including star Mardy Gilyard.
"They've improved a lot from last year even, and they were really good at the passing the ball last year," Allen said. "We have to know our assignments and know what they do, get in the film room and find as many tendencies as we can. And the we have to keep the ball in front of us and try to make some plays."
Luckily for South Florida, they have one of the best playmaking safeties in the Big East.