PITTSBURGH — Cortez Allen shook his head and laughed.
Yes, the third-year Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback heard teammate Ike Taylor proclaim Allen is “going to be (trouble) for a lot of people” when he takes over the starting spot created by Keenan Lewis’ offseason departure.
No, Allen doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I have no control out of what comes out of Ike’s mouth,” Allen said.
What the 24-year-old can control, however, is his work ethic and his confidence. Both appear to be in midseason form.
The former fourth-round draft pick spent his first two years in the league getting his feet set. Now he figures it’s time to show defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and secondary coach Carnell Lake he’s been paying attention.
Ask Allen what makes him effective and he doesn’t point to his height (6-foot-1) or his strength but what is going on underneath his helmet.
“I try not to panic about anything,” Allen said. “I try not to worry about anything. I try to be positive about everything.”
It’s a mindset that took time for Allen to develop. His deep faith played a role. So did four years at The Citadel, where the challenge went far beyond the field. Allen was drawn to the military school because of its high standards both in the classroom and in life. During his first day on campus, he wondered if he made the right decision.
“I was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Allen said.
The Citadel is hardly a football factory, having produced around a dozen professional football players in its program history. Allen was determined to join the list. During his first fall on campus, a coach asked Allen and the rest of the freshmen to write about what they wanted to get out of their football careers. Allen jotted down making it to the NFL, long as the odds seemed at the time.
“I figured that if I work hard, somebody will notice me, whether it’s in the league or in Arena or wherever,” he said.
If that makes it seem his journey to the Steelers was almost preordained, Allen insists that it was not. More than once he wondered if the NFL was just wishful thinking. There were times when the confidence that comes so easy now was shaken then.
“Your mind can be your best friend and your worst enemy,” Allen said. “It can be that friend to tell you that you can do it and keep pushing or it can be that friend that tells you to quit. It’s up to you to decide which side of that fence that you want to be on. I learned to be on the right side of it.”
So much so the Steelers took him with the 128th overall pick in the 2011 draft. The ongoing lockout prevented Allen and the rest of the incoming rookie class to use organized team activities and minicamp to get acclimated. So when Allen arrived for training camp when the lockout finally ended, he allows he was a little “star struck.”
Sitting in a meeting room with guys whose resumes are littered with Super Bowl rings and Pro Bowls, Allen tried to gather himself and remember he belonged.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Allen said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to really show out.’”
No worries on that front. Allen spent most of his rookie season working on special teams before moving to nickelback in 2012 and even filling in when Taylor went down with a leg injury late in the year.
Allen finished with two interceptions and 47 tackles for the NFL’s best pass defense, allowing the Steelers to let Lewis — who was second in the league with 23 passes defensed in 2012 — go to New Orleans in free agency.
While Allen was happy for his friend, he also knew that meant he was probably in line to start. He understands why it’s a big deal. He’s just doing his best not to treat it like one.
“I try to approach every day like I’m a starter,” Allen said. “I learned last year you have to prepare like a starter because you could be in there on any play.”
The Steelers believe Allen has the talent to be in there for every play. He spent a portion of the offseason in Florida working out with Taylor. The 32-year-old Taylor sees an heir apparent in the soft-spoken kid who still has a habit of calling anyone who stops by his locker “sir” or “ma’am.”
“He pretty much has everything you are looking for as far as a cornerback, being a shutdown guy,” Taylor said.
Allen isn’t ready to go that far. He’s not as concerned about becoming a star as he is about winning. It’s not a coincidence his best friend on the team is fellow cornerback Curtis Brown, taken one round ahead of Allen in the 2011 draft. Instead of competing against each other, they joined forces, even if Allen has surpassed Brown on the depth chart.
It never comes up. At the end of organized team activities on Tuesday, Allen and Brown spent an extra five minutes on the field refining technique, doing for each other what the veterans did for them when they arrived two years ago.
“Since Day 1, the oldest guys have taken us under the wing and shown us the ropes,” Allen said. “It’s not about individual advancement, it’s about team. It’s about winning the Super Bowl.”