The most important gift Boston College defensive end Zach Allen got in the offseason was a NutriBullet.
When he took the step to retool his diet, the compact blender he got from his mom was the centerpiece.
Allen had watched the changes that Harold Landry and Isaac Yiadom made to their eating habits as they went through the NFL combine process and decided to adopt them for himself.
“I was just trying to find new ways to improve what I can do,” Allen said. “Harold went to do his combine training and so did Ike and they came back with all these tips and new things.”
He mapped out goals for healthy eating and came up with meal plans and Allen stuck to them almost religiously.
“It’s two plain chicken breasts, maybe a piece and a half of salmon, steak and it’s brown rice,” he said. “Then it’s just a big bowl of plain spinach, plain tomatoes and carrots. My mom got me a NutriBullet, so that’s huge. I’ve got to get some carbs. I do Grape-Nuts and then I do protein powder and frozen fruit, every single morning.”
The routine could get redundant — chicken again! — but the results were undeniable.
“It kind of gets a little bit of the same old, same old food, but it’s exciting,” Allen said. “I definitely feel better, I look better. So I’m really glad to kind of venture into that.”
The Eagles will open up preseason camp in August and Allen will be their linchpin on defense. He became the anchor of the defensive line when injuries marred Landry’s senior season. He somehow flew under the radar a year ago, despite finishing second in the nation among defensive ends with 100 tackles. He was voted All-Atlantic Coast Conference honorable mention, which many in the Eagles locker room took as a snub.
After back-to-back seven-win seasons capped by consecutive bowl appearances, the Eagles are positioned for a breakthrough. At the same time, Allen is poised to follow Landry’s footsteps as an NFL draft prospect.
Looking for an added edge in an always competitive landscape, Allen saw nutrition as a way to maximize his performance.
“He was in that mindset,” said Eagles head coach Steve Addazio. “A lot of our guys are really into the nutrition thing. It’s like do you want to use high octane fuel or do you want to use low octane fuel? The fuel you put in your body matters for your performance. Bigger, stronger, faster, that’s what it’s all about. So I think guys realize that, hey, if I reduce my body fat and change my diet and understand what carbohydrates are the right ones to eat, which are the wrong ones to eat, cut a lot of the sugars of their system, they can have better fuel and they can perform at a little higher level.”
The logic behind eating better was simple: If you eat poorly, no amount of training will help.
“You really can’t outwork a bad diet,” Allen said.
With that in mind, he made his diet a part of the work. He sought out BC’s sports dietician Joan Buchbinder, who had experience with the Celtics, Patriots and the US Army Research Institute of Environment Medicine. They laid out when and what to eat, different combinations to break up monotony and tracked everything from carbs to grams of fat and sugar.
“When I first met her [it] was sophomore year, I knew nutrition was important,” Allen said. “I got into it. But after a long day of class, stuff like that, you really don’t want to be eating the same bland old stuff, but now I’m really into it all the time. Spacing my meals.
“She’s been fantastic and her track record’s ridiculous. She really is the best resource you could have for nutrition. Having her has been a godsend.”
Last year, Allen suffered a shoulder injury against Notre Dame during the third week of the season. He played through it even though it required offseason surgery.
“He had a lot of grit,” Addazio said. “He dealt with that and got it fixed and now he feels fantastic. It’s hard when you’re playing dinged up or injured. That’s the way the game is, you’ve got to play that way. Especially at the level he’s going to be playing at.”
In January, he had the procedure performed in New York at the Hospital For Special Surgery by Dr. David Altchek. The recovery took six months, but in that time he still found ways to train.
“I was out of commission for a little while,” Allen said. “So I wasn’t able to do much. I would have to find a way to stay in shape a little bit and kind of clean up the diet.”
Eventually, Allen started seeing results. The biggest sign of validation came when the Eagles were going through conditioning drills in the offseason. In the past, defensive ends are split between the slimmer ends and the bigger ends. The bigger ends would run with the heavier defensive tackles and Allen would dominate those runs.
This year, however, the bigger ends ran with the slimmer ends. At first, Allen wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep up with the times.
“Now I’m starting to win those sprints and all the conditioning along with it,” he said. “So that’s kind of where I started feeling it.”
There’s also the simple self-esteem boost.
“You look in the mirror and look better,” he said.
Eagles tight end Tommy Sweeney noticed.
“I’ve watched him and it’s pretty impressive,” Sweeney said. “With the knowledge that we have these days, it’s kind of easy to get a grasp of what’s right to do. You’re able to eat healthier and still be able to weigh 300-whatever pounds — which is just incredible — and I think they’ve all taken advantage of it.”
Allen went into the offseason with a clear idea of the expectations that both he and the team would carry. His answer was to control what he could and prepare.
“You’ve just got to focus on football,” he said. “The outside noise, it’s nice and all, but especially with the team we have coming back we have a 13-week window to do something really special, so if you just focus on that, all the other stuff will handle itself.”