COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Early in the second quarter on Saturday, Kyle Allen stood in the pocket and made the kind of throw coaches hope to see from their quarterback.
It was a play-action pass designed to get receiver Christian Kirk open, and though the fake hand-off to running back Tra Carson gave Arkansas’ linebackers a brief pause, they were blitzing, making a beeline toward Allen. Arkansas true freshman Dre Greenlaw had the Texas A&M quarterback in his sights.
Allen couldn’t get rid of the ball right away, not with defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter dropping into coverage and into the window Kirk was running across. So Allen had to stand tough, hold the ball for a second longer until Kirk passed Ledbetter and separated from the man covering him, cornerback Henre' Toliver, before letting fly, knowing a hit from Greenlaw was coming. He released it, Kirk caught it, weaved through defenders for a 44-yard touchdown while Allen was placed on his behind by the force of Greenlaw’s hit.
"It's just a throw you have to make sometimes," Allen said Tuesday. "It's tough because you don't want to take a sack, but sometimes you have to roll the dice to get 60-yard touchdowns out of it."
It’s that kind of throw and decision-making that has the Aggies feeling good about Allen, their sophomore quarterback.
The player widely considered to be the SEC’s best quarterback coming into the 2015 season, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, comes to Kyle Field to meet Allen and the Aggies in a top-25 showdown on Saturday night. When Prescott, a senior, departs the league, who will succeed him with that title? Some think it could be his counterpart this weekend, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Allen.
"If they can protect him, he might be the best QB in the league when it's all said and done," a former SEC defensive coach told ESPN.com in August.
Currently, there is a strong case to be made that Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly and Georgia’s Greyson Lambert are ahead of Allen in that discussion. Kelly has the best signature win, leading the Rebels to a road victory at Alabama last month. Lambert has been brilliant in four starts, with a 76.5 percent completion rate (second in the FBS) while throwing zero interceptions.
But Allen, who has nine career starts dating to 2014, is showing the ability, poise and growth that contributed to his ranking as the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2014 ESPN 300. The most significant evidence of Allen’s progress came in the fourth quarter of Texas A&M’s two toughest games this season -- Arizona State and Arkansas.
In both, Allen was stellar late. Against the Sun Devils, he rebounded from a mediocre start to go 6-for-7 passing for 110 yards and a touchdown, leading three scoring drives that turned a 17-14 Aggies lead to a 38-17 win. Against the Razorbacks, the Aggies trailed 21-13 early in the fourth, but Allen responded by going 7-for-9 for 129 yards and a score in the fourth quarter and overtime of the 28-21 comeback victory.
Among Power 5 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 10 passes in the fourth quarter and overtime this season, Allen has the best Total QBR of 98.6 -- well above the national average of 63.1.
"You've seen his play elevate in tough times and crucial situations," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. "In the fourth quarter and in overtime [against Arkansas] he was making such mature decisions that he probably wouldn't get to last year, but the experience that he's had got him in that situation.”
Allen showcased his ability late last season. After a rough starting debut in a win against Louisiana-Monroe, he threw four touchdown passes in the Aggies’ 41-38 road upset of then-No. 3 ranked Auburn last November. He later earned offensive MVP honors in Texas A&M’s bowl win against West Virginia and won a training camp competition with true freshman Kyler Murray to keep the starting job. Notably, Murray has appeared in all four games and clearly has a role -- however specialized it might be -- in this offense.
With this Saturday serving as Allen’s 10th start, how good he can truly be remains to be seen. The Aggies' upcoming stretch of games -- vs. Mississippi State, vs. Alabama and at Ole Miss -- will be defining, not only for their season, but for Allen as evidence of his progress. His teammates are confident in him.
"He keeps growing every week," junior offensive tackle Germain Ifedi said. "It just comes down to how mature he is for somebody his age, as a sophomore in college. His maturity level is off the charts. Every week it seems even when things aren't going great in the game, the ball doesn't roll your way, the call doesn't go your way, he keeps his head up no matter what's going on. He leads this offense."