Time, as well as the ability to shed blockers and make plays during training camp, will determine if Jon Alston is a blown-up safety or a strong sidelinebacker capable of blowing up a sweep to his side.
Although Alston felt the Raiders defense did not perform up to par in Wednesday’s open-to-the-media organized team activity session, his own performance was impressive.
He is one of the most spirited, enthusiastic defenders, playing with a contagious enthusiasm even in the most routine practice sessions. He made a number of plays in the passing game, and positioned himself for would-be stops in non-contact drills against the run.
It is the latter skill which will be tested when the Raiders convene in Napa. In his fourth-year out of Stanford, Alston is a man varied interests. He plays the guitar and has designs on being an actor in his post-football life.
Rather than spend a lot of time with those pursuits, Alston put his mind to packing on some pounds after finishing the season at 214 pounds, making him the smallest strongside linebacker in the league.
At first glance, Alston, with bigger arms and thicker around the neck and shoulders, doesn’t seem to have lost any of his quickness.
Building a body beyond its capacity can have its risks, not only in terms of health but performance. Years ago, the Raiders wanted Lance Johnstone to come in a little heavier so he could advance to something beyond a pass rusher.
Johnstone got heavier all right _ he came in with a gut and a year later he was released and wound up in Minnesota.
A pair of Raiders tight ends, Randal Williams and John Madsen, also got bigger but not necessarily better.
Williams, special teams player and wide receiver, went from a wide receiver in the 200-pound range to a thickly muscled 230-pound plus because Norv Turner wanted him to play tight end. He began to drop passes, experience back trouble and eventually was gone.
The decision with Madsen, a slot receiver at Utah, was to either make him a large wideout in the Ed McCaffrey mold or convert him to tight end. The bigger Madsen got, the more injury-prone he became, and his receiving skills suffered as well.
Alston believes his body has taken to the added weight and thinks he is at an age where he can get bigger as well as better.
Here’s a few questions I asked of Alston as he came off the field Wednesday in a brief interview before Tom Cable went to the podium to address the media:
Q: Is there a lot of difference in what you’re doing defensively this year, or is it just doing things better?
Alston: One of the main things we’re going to be seeing is a strong sense of refinement in this defense. Coach Marshall brings a ton of experience. he’s been in the NFL probably a lot longer than I’ve been alive and one of the things that comes with that is added discipline. We enjoy having him around, and that’s basically what’s going down.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about how the run defense can be fixed with discipline without a major change in personnel. Is that viable?
Alston: Look at anybody’s life. If you ever want to prove something, you’ve got to know where you messed up, acknowledge that you messed up, then fix those problems piece by piece. Personnel is not going be the issue. We have talent. Everyone knows we have talent. It’s can we play together, can we be disciplined, how much do we care? That’s the test. I think what we have now is a new sense of vigor, especially under coach Cable, in making sure we get stuff done.
It’s not just going to be that we play well once in awhile and that’s good enough. It’s making sure we get this stuff done. It’s got to be every time we play, we play well. Today we didn’t have the best practice, so we have to come out (Thursday) and have a better practice than (Tuesday) _ which was a great practice, especially on the defensive side. Coach Cable let us know, and that’s the biggest part. he let us know we’ve got to go to work.
Q: You were considered a tweener at Stanford, not exactly a safety, not exactly a weakside linebacker. You played on the strong side last year. Is too much made of pigeonholing a player in a certain position or is a football player simply a football player?
Alston: Everybody’s journey in this league is different. I’ve been fortunate enough to put on some weight this offseason. It’s come with age and a lot of hard work, but it’s given me a chance to compete. If they tell me to play SAM, I’ll bulk up and do my best to play SAM. I just want to play.
Q: How much bigger did you get?
Alston: You know what? I probably ended the season around 214 and I’ve gotten up to 235. Right now I’m sitting at 232.
Q: Some players lose their quickness when they bulk up and that’s a big part of your game. But you seem to have kept yours judging from the practice field . . .
Alston: I think it was time for my body to grow a little bit.