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Pat Harty: Alston earned his starting spot the hard way

[ 0 ] April 4, 2014 |

Leaving probably would’ve been the easiest thing for Quinton Alston to do.

When it became apparent that he probably would be stuck playing behind James Morris at middle linebacker for three seasons on the Iowa football team, Alston could have done what countless student athletes do these days and transfer to a different school.

He could have transferred to a school closer to his hometown of Sicklerville, N.J., with the explanation that he was homesick and it would have made sense.

He could have blamed the Iowa coaches for why he didn’t succeed as a Hawkeye or made other excuses for leaving.

Or he could have stayed at Iowa, worked his tail off, been a supportive teammate, dealt with his frustrations like a man and waited for his opportunity to shine.

Hawkeye fans should be pleased and proud to know that Alston has done the latter.

He accepted his role as Morris’ understudy and made the most of it during his first three seasons by contributing on special teams and as part of a new rush package that was installed last season.

With Morris gone, Alston finally sits atop the depth chart this spring, along with Iowa’s two other starting linebackers from the 2013 season, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. The performances of the three new starters at linebacker — junior Travis Perry and sophomore Reggie Spearman are listed as the other two — should go a long way in determining Iowa’s success next season, considering how the impact the three positions have on defense.

“We need some leaders to emerge, and I feel that I have the opportunity to do that, and I will do that,” Alston said. “With those three (linebackers) leaving, we need some guys to emerge. Especially playing the middle linebacker here, I think I need to be one of those guys, and I want to be one of those guys, and I will be one of those guys.”

“So next year is going to be a big year. I can’t wait for it.”

Alston’s loyalty to Iowa has been tested not only by his lack of playing time, but also by his distance from home. There isn’t the luxury of having family nearby to provide support. Social media makes it easier to stay connected, but it’s not the same as getting a hug or a home-cooked meal from a relative during tough times.

And yet Alston has stayed true to his commitment to Iowa and embraced being a Hawkeye. He admires and respects his coaches and the linebackers who played ahead of him, including last season’s senior trio, and especially Tyler Nielsen, who played at Iowa from 2008-11.

“It was a very hard road, a very hard road,” Alston said. “But being a Hawkeye, you really can’t put into words how special it is. If you’re around the program and if you’re a fan of the Hawkeyes, then you’ll really understand what I’ve been through and see why I continue to stay here and believe in the system. It’s just being a Hawkeye. That kept me here.”

And to think it almost didn’t happen. Alston previously was committed to Pittsburgh, and switched to Iowa only after Pittsburgh had a coaching change.

The fact that Alston had the option of choosing between two major colleges speaks of his talent, considering he played in only two games as a high school senior because of an injury.

Alston quickly learned, however, that everybody was talented at the Big Ten level. He was still adjusting to playing linebacker when he arrived at Iowa after seeing extensive action at defensive end in high school.

Alston was humbled and frustrated by the transition, but never intimidated by it. He listened, learned and stayed the course, one day at a time, and is now being rewarded with a starting position.

“In high school, I only played one full season at linebacker, and when I got here I was pretty raw,” Alston said. “So when I got here, those three guys in front of me and also the other guys like Tyler Nielsen, who was like my idol when he was here, were a big part in my progression.

“But when you get here, you think you’re fast enough, you think you’re strong enough and you think you’re smart enough, and sometimes you’re really not. All these guys were stars somewhere, and you’re just one of them. You just have to work extra and beyond what is just necessary to be great.”

Alston still found ways as a backup to inspire and contribute, always putting the team first.

“Quinton has a special quality,” Iowa linebackers coach Jim Reid said. “He has a great understanding of the game. I just want you to know that he coached James (Morris) last year as hard as I did, because that’s what we ask our players to do, is to coach each other.

“Quinton has a great focus. He’s got a great intensity, and right now he has a great enthusiasm. He’s making all the calls, just like James did, because he did it with the second unit last year, and he’s very, very anxious.”

Alston saw action in all 13 games last season, finishing with 12 tackles and one fumble recovery. The 6-foot-1, 232-pounder was part of a new rush package that defensive coordinator Phil Parker unveiled last season.

“We were able to also get Quinton on the field in Phil Parker’s third-down package, which really was dynamic for us after the Ohio State game,” Reid said. “He was a major part in that. So I think he’s really excited about it, and he’s tough, he’s physical. And you know what? He has the respect of our players. When he speaks, he’s like E.F. Hutton; people listen.”

With his loyalty and commitment, Alston has earned that respect.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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