CEDAR RAPIDS - The Cedar Rapids Titans and Sioux Falls Storm have met in the conference title game in each of the past four seasons.
If the Titans have any hope to make it five, they will need to dig out of an ever-increasing hole.
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No. 5 ... Quinton Alston is new here. He’s not new to the Hawkeyes. He’s a senior and he’s poised to take over the middle linebacker spot on a defense that returns its front four and that should be pretty good.
He’s new to the spokesman role. He’s so new he reached out and offered to hold the mic for a cameraman during an interview session this spring. He’s new to the spotlight, and he’s off to a good start in the manners department.
“I think he’s really excited about it,” Iowa inside linebackers coach Jim Reid said, when asked about having a senior starter and that starter maximizing his one shot at the starting lineup.
“He’s tough, he’s physical, and you know what?” Reid said. “He has the respect of our players. When he speaks, he’s like E.F. Hutton, people listen. [That’s a reference to the commercials for the Hutton financial company.]”
Alston, a 6-1, 232-pounder from Sicklerville, N.J., is eager not anxious. He wants the pressure. This is what he’s been working up to and now here it is.
“My sophomore year, I think was pretty much sitting back and admiring what was in front of me,” Alston said. “There was James [Morris], Christian [Kirksey] and Anthony [Hitchens, the three seniors who started at linebacker last season], I tried to become a student of the game.
“I sat back and learned and tried to take it all in. I was set on learning more and with that going on I started to think a little more. Now, that I have all the details and the bigger concepts down, I think I’m starting to play faster and let my talent show.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz wondered last week about Alston’s sophomore season. Alston’s 2013 effort put that to rest.
“Quinton is a guy a year ago at this time I wasn’t sure where that was going, quite frankly based on the year before that,” Ferentz said. “He had a really good spring and had an outstanding fall. If James wasn’t here last year, we had al the confidence in the world he would’ve played really well. He got positioned behind a very good player. The transformation he’s made in 12 months gives you a lot of confidence.”
Coming alive in 2013 ... Alston didn’t play much middle linebacker last season, but he did see the field and, in Reid’s opinion, that as a big deal.
Alston had a role in the third-down defense, namely the rush package defensive coordinator Phil Parker used called “Raider.” Alston lined up as a defensive end in a three-man front.
“It was pretty fun,” Alston said. “We played out of position a little bit coming off the edge in different packages and blitzes. It was really fun for me, just going out there and trusting your ability. I didn’t have that many responsibilities or think as much. It was pretty fun.”
The “Raider” had some successes. Reid said its biggest was the enthusiasm it gave Alston.
“Something you may not see that I could see was all of a sudden maybe Reggie and Quinton walk into the meeting room with their chests out just a little bit more, with a little bit of a smile on their face,” Reid said. “All of a sudden now it means a little bit more because they’re part of it, and they deserved to be part of it because they worked hard. So, growth takes a lot of different avenues that you need to see.”
Alston and ... The No. 2 middle linebacker, that could be an interesting proposition. Senior walk-on transfer (a rare football animal, indeed) Chad Gilson and redshirt freshman John Kenny are listed No. 2. Neither has played a down. Gilson sat out last season after transferring from Northern Iowa. Kenny sat out as a redshirt. Could redshirt freshman Josey Jewell also factor as a backup here? Maybe, but it’d also be asking a lot out of a 225-pounder in his first year. Then again, Kenny also is 225 pounds.
“We’re thin,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “My biggest concern is experience level. I like our guys, they’re good guys ... Those guys will do fine, we can’t get hurt, though. We’ve got to keep guys healthy.”
Outlook ... This is what Alston wants. He is a senior and this is his shot. He wants the starting middle linebacker job for a team that should be picked among the leaders in the Big Ten’s west division.
“I’m not putting too much pressure on myself,” he said. “I’m trying to take on the leadership roles the three guys ahead of me left for us. They taught us how to do it. We have the blueprint.”
Iowa coaches have three years of book on Alston. The confidence is high. They believe he’s ready, quite possibly more than ready.
“I’m only smiling because someone asked me about Quinton Alston yesterday, one of the Big Ten Network guys. I just kind of started laughing,” Ferentz said about a question from Big Ten media days. “I think Quinton is one of the guys who’s not being talked about who is really going to be a good player for us. Why would he be talked about? He hasn’t played. I think he’s a good player who got stuck behind some really good players. I’m so pleased with what I’ve seen of him the last two springs and last season. I just think he’s really ready to go.”
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