The circumstances never seem to matter with Nate Allen.
It might be an errant pass, a loose fumble, a blocked field goal, even a fumbled kickoff return. Regardless, the football has an inexplicable, nearly gravitational pull to the hands of USF's senior safety.
"He's just a ball magnet," Bulls cornerback Quenton Washington said. "Sometimes, he won't even be in the right spot, where he's supposed to be on the play. It comes to wherever he's at."
On a defense tied for 10th in the nation with 17 takeaways, Allen is seen as the luckiest ballhawk of all.
During USF's loss to Cincinnati last week, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul got a hand on quarterback Zach Collaros as he threw. Naturally, the misdirected pass fell to Allen, who returned it 23 yards to set up a touchdown.
"When I hit the ball, I felt like someone was going to intercept it, and it always seems like Nate's right there," Pierre-Paul said.
Allen, 6 feet 2, 207 pounds, has eight career interceptions, as much as all of USF's other defensive backs combined. Today, he returns to the scene of his only pick-six. He returned an interception for a touchdown at Pittsburgh in the Bulls' win in 2007.
It's a ranked opponent in the No. 20 Panthers, on the road and with temperatures expected to be in the 50s at kickoff, but Allen said USF must put aside all of those excuses.
"We have to step up to it because that's what great teams do," Allen said. "If we want a shot at this Big East, the bottom line, we have to win. We have no more room for error."
Allen's only touchdown this season came on a 75-yard return of a blocked field goal. He also scored as a sophomore after recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff against Louisville. He leads the Bulls with 36 total tackles this season, and his three interceptions are tied for second in the Big East.
But ask his coaches, and Allen's ability to be in the right place at the right time isn't luck so much as a by-product of unmatched preparation and focus.
"He practices as hard as anybody we have on this football team, day in and day out," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "He studies a lot of video and is just a student of the game. I can sit here all day and talk about him, and he keeps getting better every week."
Allen has had the chance this season to work with, arguably, the best safety in USF history, J.R. Reed, who is a grad assistant after four seasons in the NFL. Reed, too, had a knack for being around the ball and said it's never accidental with Allen.
"When you hustle to the ball, you end up around it," Reed said. "He doesn't take any plays off. I keep challenging him, not to be as good as the person next to him or across from him but to be as good as he can be."
Allen, who will graduate in December with a degree in communications, is in position to follow Reed's path to the NFL. ESPN.com recently said he had the talent to be taken in the second round of the draft.
Since his freshman year, Allen has been known to teammates as "Golden Child" because he seemingly can do no wrong by USF's coaches. For all the ribbing he takes, he's proud for the reputation he has built.
"I'm not perfect," said the Fort Myers native, who starred at Cape Coral High. "It feels good to know the guys know I want to do everything right, on and off the field."
Allen has been an influence on younger defensive backs such as freshman Kayvon Webster and first-year starters Washington and Jerrell Young.
"I know how a lot of them feel. I can help them out with the mental part, especially for the big games, when they're not sure what's going to happen," Allen said. "I know how it was my freshman and sophomore year, when my head was spinning and I had guys lining me up in the right place."
As much as coach Jim Leavitt appreciates Allen's play as a veteran leader, he's more complimentary of the model he has set for others away from Saturdays.
"Tremendous player. Tremendous person," Leavitt said. "I'm very impressed with him in every way. How he handles his life, how he plays on the field, his demeanor, his work ethic, his focus. You don't find many guys like that."
Asked if he can remember a time he had to yell at Allen in four seasons, Leavitt said no, then paused for a few seconds.
"There was a coverage mistake a couple of years ago, and I had to get after him," Leavitt remembers. "But no, he really is that special."
Follow Greg Auman's blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.