OXFORD, Miss. — Cliff Godwin started the preaching back in the fall.
The Ole Miss hitting coach knew the tools were present, but time was becoming scarce in Will Allen’s career. The senior catcher was back behind the plate and Ole Miss (44-18) needed him to handle the pitching staff and hit in the middle of the order.
It was a substantial assignment to be Stuart Turner’s replacement, the Rebels’ 2013 catcher who won the Johnny Bench Award, an honor presented to the nation’s top player at the position.
“I told Will, and sure we tweaked some stuff, but I told him he’s one of the best hitters in the country,” Godwin said. “I told him he had that chance and he works hard, but he had to believe it. You’d think he was trying to make the travel roster with how he worked. He’s a self-made player.”
Allen hit just four home runs and had only 23 RBIs in 2013, serving as Turner’s reserve and the Rebels’ first baseman. He batted just .231 in 60 games and put up an OPS of only .577.
“It all started in the offseason with the training and the work we did to get better,” Allen said. “The coaches have been a big help, and the players around me have made it easier. ... I’ve seen the ball really well.”
The transformation has been remarkable. Allen had the home run total from 2013 before the first two weeks of the season were done.
He helped Ole Miss to the top team batting average in the Southeastern Conference and captured the league batting title, hitting .359 in the regular season, edging Kentucky All-America selection A.J. Reed by less than a percentage point.
He scored the winning run in Ole Miss’ 3-2 extra-inning regional win over Washington that set up this weekend’s super regional against UL-Lafayette.
Allen’s seven home runs are second on the team, and he leads the Rebels with 59 RBIs. The OPS is at a team-high .909 a year later.
“Will has been everything we could hope for back there,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “His maturity and his offense and then his defense is underrated. He’s back there every game, but it’s hardly ever talked about.”
As Ole Miss’ full-time catcher as a sophomore, Allen couldn’t handle the grind of the 60-game season. He dropped 20 pounds and struggled with the workload as the year moved on, though his batting average did finish at .302 at season’s end.
This season the weight has stayed on despite catching more than 50 and playing in all 62 games. Allen was named a Johnny Bench finalist himself last week. He’s in impressive company with Indiana’s Kyle Schwarber and Kennesaw State’s Max Pentecost.
“It’s mostly taking care of myself,” Allen said. “We lift two times a week and I try to maintain my weight. Making sure I stay 225-230 pounds and then stretching on my own before practice, and I get in the cold tub.”
Ole Miss demands much from its catchers, as Bianco (LSU), Godwin (East Carolina) and pitching coach Carl Lafferty (Ole Miss) all played the position in college. The combined tutelage has guided Turner and Allen to recognized honors, but it’s also a recruiting tool and a point of pride for the Rebels coaching staff.
Allen was recently named second team All-SEC by the league coaches.
“The catchers don’t have a moment to breathe because we are working them constantly,” Godwin said. “It’s a great development tool we have here. We’ve had great players, but it’s a credit to Will’s work ethic. It’s his accomplishment.”