- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- There are certain positions that always worry fans and others that generate a full, almost blind faith, no matter who's coming or going. Iowa's linebacker corps is one of the latter.
No James Morris, Anthony Hitchens or Christian Kirksey? We'll be fine, Iowa fans have repeatedly said since the 2013 season ended. They point to Hawkeyes history, especially under coach Kirk Ferentz, as evidence that the team always finds ways to firm up the nerve center of its defense.
Quinton Alston loves their confidence. He's confident, too.
"We have three great guys like that, and for them to leave and the fans still think we can step into those roles even through we're quote-unquote inexperienced, that's a great honor," Alston recently told ESPN.com. "I love the tradition here."
Alston intends to continue it this fall as he steps into a leading role at middle linebacker, a spot Morris occupied for most of the past three seasons. Iowa is replacing more production at linebacker than any team in the Big Ten, and there are unknowns, like who will replace Kirksey's speed, energy and willingness to sacrifice his body.
But one question coaches aren't asking is who will lead the group.
The 6-foot-1, 232-pound Alston has 24 tackles in 29 career games but boasts only one start, back in 2012. He was undoubtedly Iowa's No. 4 linebacker last season, but the Hawkeyes' starters rarely left the field.
"We all felt like if something had happened where if we had to take James out or shift James to one of the other linebacker positions, Quinton would have been the next guy in the game," Ferentz said. "He grew up more than anything, developed a confidence level about himself and practiced at a real high rate. He's ready to go."
The turning point for Alston, according to Ferentz, came before spring practice in 2013. After appearing in six games as a true freshman in 2011, he had just five tackles in 10 games the next year and "had kind of stalled out a little bit," Ferentz said.
Even though Morris had a stranglehold on the top middle linebacker spot, Alston progressed well throughout the spring and continued to develop during the season. He excelled in practices and tried to maximize his time in games, working in third-down packages and on almost every special teams unit.
"When he was running with the twos, he took command of the huddle," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "That's what you need, to really understand you're controlling the defense. By doing that, his understanding of what he needs to do within the scheme has really helped him and improved this spring."
He learned a lot from the three starters, especially Morris. Their personalities "couldn't be any different," but the two academic All-Big Ten players bonded over the cerebral side of their position -- diagnosing plays and formations.
"If it was just us in the film room, he would tell me what he's looking at and what little details he can point out," Alston said. "James and Hitch, they would walk up the D-line and tell them, 'All right, watch out for this play.' And that would be the play they'd run."
Iowa's defensive line is likely the team's strongest unit and will anchor the defense this season. But linemen are noticing Alston's presence, and they're grateful for it.
"He communicates with everybody," defensive tackle Carl Davis said. "He makes sure everybody knows the new calls. If he sees something wrong with the front, he'll definitely let us know what we need to do.
"He's the linebacker, so he's in charge of the huddle."
It has been a long wait for Alston, a Sicklerville, N.J., native, who committed to Pitt as a recruit but changed to Iowa following a coaching change. But the value of patience isn't lost on the senior.
"It's not one day, you snap your fingers and you're a leader," he said. "Next to James and Hitch and Chris, I was trying to take on what they do as leaders and try to do what I could.
"They helped me out a lot. I think I can take it from here."
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