Friday, August 25, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

At first glance, everything about Jon Alston screams football player. At 6 foot and 221 chiseled pounds, Alston has the complete physical package to succeed in the NFL.

On further inspection, Alston clearly has the intelligence to make the transition from college to the NFL. At Stanford, Alston earned a degree in public policy and spent time as an intern in the bio-medical research field.

Based on those credentials, Alston would seem to be one of the most NFL-ready of the Rams’ drafted prospects. So, why, then is Alston behind the curve for the first time in a long time?

“Jon is behind because of him not being here the whole offseason,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “That’s going to be hard for him to make it up. Being a linebacker and missing three months and 25 practices, is hard. I think in the long run Jon is going to be a good player.”

Through no fault of his own, Alston was forced to miss almost all of the team’s offseason program. After the Rams drafted him in the third round, Alston arrived in St. Louis for the team’s rookie minicamp, but departed soon after to complete school.

NFL rules stipulate that players must have completed their final semesters before participating in team activities. Stanford is on a trimester system, meaning its school year lasts longer than other schools. Alston returned to Palo Alto with a playbook and desire to learn, but it didn’t take long to realize that the time missed would leave him lagging behind.

“It does make a difference," Alston said. “I didn't realize it would make as much of a difference as it has. It’s really important actually because those OTA’s, and stuff like that, they are really like spring ball for college.”

Alston didn’t return to St. Louis until June 15, nearly the same time that organized team activities ended. By the time he returned, all that remained was a week of conditioning and workouts.

It was hardly enough time for Alston to play catch up. When Alston arrived back in St. Louis for the start of training camp, he had plenty of work to do to catch up.

Helping him in his adjustment is the presence of free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. Like Alston, the Rams drafted Atogwe in the third round out of Stanford last season and he went through a similar experience.

At Stanford, Alston was used primarily as a situational pass rusher. He played some linebacker and safety, but he spent most of his time near the line of scrimmage with the simple goal of chasing down the quarterback and the ball.

Alston was considered a ‘tweener in the NFL because of his size, but Haslett views him as the perfect fit to be used in a number of roles for the Rams sometime in the not-so-distant future.

One position Alston continues to work in that could eventually be his ideal spot is the “buck” end spot. When the Rams go to their multiple looks and use elements of a 3-4 defense, one player can be seen lining up near the line of scrimmage, as a linebacker of even as a back end defensive back. That buck end spot might be difficult for anyone to handle, but eventually it could be the perfect spot for Alston.

“It’s kind of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end that moves around,” Haslett said. “He can either rush, drop into coverage. He has to be fairly smart because he has to do a number of different things. He could play end, he could play linebacker, he could drop into the middle of the field and deep third. It depends on the call. It’s a multiple position guy that in a 3-4 or odd man look he could be an outside linebacker, a free safety and also rush.”

Of course, because of his steep learning curve Alston probably won’t get many opportunities to make a difference on the defense this season.

In the normal 4-3 set, Alston is currently a backup at weak side linebacker behind Pisa Tinoisamoa and Dexter Coakley. Will Witherspoon is the starter in the middle with Brandon Chillar and Raonall Smith on the strong side. Alston’s spot seems secure and it’s likely the Rams will keep seven linebackers. That leaves the backup middle linebacker job in question in what should come down to a battle between Jamal Brooks and rookie Tim McGarigle for the job.

Alston is fully aware that his time missed probably cost him a chance to be a serious contributor on defense this year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help in other areas.

“I don’t know if he’ll help us this year as a defensive player, but I think he’ll help us on teams,” Haslett said. “I think Jon will be a teams player and if we need him in a pinch – we’ll teach him a bunch of positions too – he can be a buck end, dime position. He has a lot on his plate. He’s very intelligent and he’ll pick it up in time.”

In the meantime, Alston has no problems doing what he’s doing and attempting to learn the intricacies of special teams in the NFL. There’s no doubt it has been somewhat frustrating for Alston to be behind – at times he has been so frustrated with himself he could be seen slamming his helmet during practice – but he is settling in and will probably be contributing sooner than later in some form or another.

“It started off rough, but it’s getting a little bit better,” Alston said. “My biggest disappointment, personally, is I haven't progressed as fast as I want to on special teams. I take a lot of pride in it. Until I get to the point where I am most comfortable, I won’t be satisfied.

“I’m working on it. I’m pretty much a work in progress.”