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Jeff Allen plays big, thinks big for Illini

Jeff Allen (71) has made 34 consecutive starts since his true freshman year. | University Illinois Sports Information

Jeff Allen (71) has made 34 consecutive starts since his true freshman year. | University of Illinois Sports Information

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Updated: November 2, 2011 6:33PM

Lalibala Allen was on the verge of panic. Her son, Jeffrey, had strayed from their South Side home on the 8500 block of South Kingston and was missing.

“I was very upset and worried,’’ she said. “He was only 6.’’

It turned out that Jeff had seen another boy carrying shoulder pads and had gone to Jesse Owens Park to land his own football uniform.

“He was so excited, he took off and went to the park,’’ she said. “When I located him, I was so ­happy to find him. He wasn’t even old enough to play. But he was so big, they let him on the team.’’

Some 15 years later, Allen brings the same kind of enthusiasm and determination to Illinois’ offensive line. A 6-5, 315-pound senior, the second-team All-Big Ten tackle is a big reason Illinois produced a pair of 1,000-yard rushers (Mikel Leshoure and quarterback Nate Scheelhaase) last season.

“Off the field, he’s cool and laid back,’’ wideout A.J. Jenkins said. “On the field, he’s a beast. He wears a shirt in the weight room that says, ‘I’m a beast,’ and he really is. Nate’s the leader, but Jeff’s like the big dog. He’s definitely good.’’

A quiet but rock-solid leader, ­Allen — who has made 34 consecutive starts, beginning with the fourth game of his true-freshman season — isn’t afraid to articulate Illinois’ goals to his teammates.

One is to take advantage of an eight-game home schedule by running the table in Champaign. That would ensure that the Illini reach back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1990-91.

“That’s one of our goals, to break that trend and go to back-to-back bowls,’’ Allen said. “And we want to win back-to-back bowls, which has never been done here. I know it’s on my mind. Every day, I stress to my teammates that that’s one of our goals.’’

When Allen sets a goal, he has a history of reaching it.

“He’s always had a plan and ­followed it,’’ said Lalibala Allen, a single parent who works as an event planner. “He won’t go left, he won’t go right. He just goes forward.’’

For example, while attending an Illinois summer camp, Allen asked coach Ron Zook what it would take for him to play for the Illini. Lose some weight, Zook told him. Allen, who weighed up to 335 pounds in high school, got down to 290 before muscling back up to his current 315.

“He was a little sloppy, a little overweight,’’ Zook said. “But he was athletic. And he had that little extra something, that it was important to play at the University of Illinois. That was big.’’

While working on his weight, ­Allen also worked on his studies. That enabled him to graduate from King High School early so he could enroll at Illinois and participate in spring practice. And that enabled him to make his first start as a true freshman in Illinois’ 2008 Big Ten opener at Penn State.

“It was kind of like throwing a puppy into a ring of pit bulls,’’ Allen said. “That’s something I’ll never forget, making my first start at Penn State, with their white-out. Walking out the tunnel and seeing all that white in the stands, it was an amazing feeling.’’

The puppy is all grown up now. “He was so out of shape, so overweight,’’ Zook said. “I can remember [assistant coaches] just crushing him in winter workouts. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know.’ But he worked his tail off. He had a passion to play. He’s made himself a football player.’’

That’s no small accomplishment for a kid from a South Side neighborhood filled with roadblocks to success.

“It wasn’t necessarily scary ­because it’s what I grew up in,’’ Allen said. “Sports kept me level-headed and kept me out of trouble. I saw that guy carrying his pads one day, and I said, ‘Where’d you get them from?’ I went to the park, and I signed up.’’

And when Allen signs up, he writes in indelible ink.

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