Manatee High's Leon Allen to play football at Western Kentucky

BRADENTON -- He was eating lunch last year when Leon Allen had the conversation that changed his life.

Once again, grades prevented Allen from playing football for Manatee. Rod Frazier, who coaches the Hurricanes’ running backs, decided to giving him a talking to.

“He came to me, and he was telling me to get my head right. When he told me, he was looking into my eyes, and I could tell that it hurt him that I was doing these things,” Allen said. “I was sitting there with (former Manatee wide receiver) Quenton Bundrage, and Quent was like, ‘Yeah, he’s serious. He looked like he was about to cry.’ Ever since then, I’ve gotten my head together.”

Academically ineligible for the last three seasons, Allen has verbally committed to Western Kentucky, giving him a chance to further his football career and education while playing Division I football.

“I want to give thanks to coach Frazier and coach (Joe) Kinnan,” Allen said. “They took a lot of chances on me. They could have just gave up on me. Frazier’s been talking to me since freshman year, but my head wasn’t straight, so I wouldn’t listen to him. I didn’t think I’d have the talent to go somewhere, so my head was in a whole other direction.”

A running back, Allen has used his 5-foot-11, 217-pound frame to move north and south and run between the tackles rather than around the ends.

He’s rushed for 593 yards and eight touchdowns, while chipping in 25 catches and two receiving touchdowns heading Friday’s Class 7A-Region 3 semifinal against Venice.

“It’s a great opportunity. He’s just got to get his grades up, so now he can focus on that,” Kinnan said. “He fits into (Western Kentucky’s) offense very well.”

Western Kentucky has become an alluring spot for area players since former Manatee star Willie Taggart took over the program in November 2009. This year’s roster includes Southeast’s Boe Brand, Jonathan Dowling, Dyron Speight and Terran Williams; Braden River’s Willie McNeal; and Palmetto’s Ty Scott.

A full-fledged Division I team since 2009, the Hilltoppers are 6-5 (6-1 in the Sun Belt Conference) and eligible for their first bowl berth heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Troy.

“I went up there for a camp this summer, and I liked it up there. The running back coach showed me a lot of love,” Allen said. “It just felt like home up there. ... And they’re improving this year. They’re coming up, so I was thinking, ‘This is the perfect time.’”