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Gryphon linebacker focused on becoming a pro

A.J. Allen will get a second chance to make the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and he says he won't make the same mistake twice

A.J. Allen feels he has some unfinished business with the Saskatchewan Roughrider.

A linebacker, Allen played his fifth and final year of Canadian university football with the Guelph Gryphons in the fall after being sent back to Guelph following Saskatchewan’s CFL training camp last summer.

“I think I had a good camp. People there will tell you that. I'll tell you that,” he said. “It just didn't work out for me this time, that's all it is.”

Well, there was a little more to it than that, but it didn’t stop Allen from signing with the Roughriders early this week. That’s signing for the team for the second time in a calendar year as he had originally signed with them last January after being selected in the fourth round, 35th overall, in the 2020 CFL draft.

“Yes, I had a good camp,” the 23-year-old said. “Many guys there will tell you I had a good camp. It made sense for the team specifically. They had the guys they wanted and they were older. That was another thing, too. I was the youngest guy there. It made sense for them business-wise to send me back. It also gave me a chance to get better and progress as a linebacker and a football player in general and I think I did that. That decision worked out for both sides, in my opinion. They're getting a better football player and they had a fantastic season as well.”

Such was his performance with the Gryphons that he was named the winner of the President’s Award as the OUA’s most outstanding stand-up defensive player, an OUA all-star and an All-Canadian. He finished with 58 total tackles (29 solo, 29 assisted), six tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles in the Gryphons’ seven-game season. Those numbers were close to the totals he had amassed in his four previous seasons – 63.5 tackles, five-and-a-half sacks, 12 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries.

This year’s performance can be directly linked to the Roughriders sending him back to the Gryphons. That A.J. Allen was sent back to school by the CFL team is something he thinks about every day as it’s written on the log-in screen of his laptop.

“When I got that conversation, that call, I was devastated,” he said. “No one wants to hear that. Success comes at a price. I didn't pay enough and I'm now going to make sure that I have enough money. That's what I'm looking at.”

Biggest problem for Allen at the CFL team’s camp was simply that he was too big. He was 10 pounds heavier than his playing weight.

“COVID was not kind to me,” he said.

With the shutdowns last year, Allen found it tough to work out. He tried running hills, but they became too hard when they froze making it a tough slog. He tried to run on the streets and sidewalks, but that became impossible when it snowed and some of the sidewalks and roads became icy.

That’s something he’s determined not to let happen again.

“I have to get my body right. I want to get as conditioned as possible,” Allen said. “I want to learn from my mistakes. That's what I want to do. I came in too heavy and I have to do everything I can do to make sure that doesn't happen again. That's my main point. I wasn't too weak. I wasn't too slow. I wasn't incapable, but I could've been better and I'm going to make sure that I do everything necessary to not make the same mistakes again.”

How long did it take Allen to get over the disappointment of being sent back to play university football instead of playing pro football?

“How long did it take me to get over it?,” he repeats. “Who says I did?

“I have not gotten over it and I will not until I correct my mistake. That's just me as a person. I don't like making mistakes. I'm a guy that makes good decisions all the time. That's why Guelph got the guy they got. But I made a mistake. That's what it is. I made mistakes and that's why I'm not a Saskatchewan Roughrider this year. I will use it to drive me forward in a positive direction. I will not be negative about it because it happened and it got me this wonderful year with these accomplishments and with these teammates and with these coaches. But it happened to me and it's up to me to get over it. I'm going to use that to do it.”

Among the six other players the Roughriders signed the day they signed Allen was former Gryphon defensive lineman Alain Cimankinda. He finished his time with the Gryphons at the end of the 2019 season and was picked in the fourth round, 35th overall, of this year’s CFL draft. Cimankinda spent this season on Saskatchewan’s practice roster.