By: Chris Dagonas
It starts with the name: exotic and memorable. Unique, yet somehow still simple enough for the announcers and the viewing public to handle.
Then there’s the backstory: he went to a non-prestige college, and was not ranked inside the top 40 at his position in his graduating class. In his four years there, he helped his school rise from an also-ran to a bowl contender.
After college, he skyrocketed up the draft board with an impressive display at the combine. He was taken too early, according to some critics, but quickly proved his detractors wrong with impressive displays early on.
If you guessed this is the tale of Buffalo Bills’ rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso, you’d be right. But it’s also the story of recently retired Chicago Bears’ legendary linebacker, Brian Urlacher.
The similarities don’t end off the field. On the field, Alonso has displayed all of the same intelligence and athletic ability as the New Mexico Lobos’ alumni.
Urlacher struggled in his first professional game, but he was forced to play out of position at outside linebacker. By week 3, Urlacher had become the Chicago Bears’ starting middle linebacker, a position he held for the next 12 seasons. Alonso, by contrast, was immediately useful as the Buffalo Bills’ middle linebacker, recording nine tackles in his first game.
Middle linebacker is the brains of the defensive operation. He is the ‘coach-on-the-field’, relaying plays from the sideline to his teammates. He is also, in most cases, responsible for calling audibles and shifting coverages, if necessary. The position demands speed and tackling ability, of course, but it is also a leadership and coaching position. Middle linebackers are often asked to identify an offensive play before the snap, or immediately afterwards. In reality, they are the quarterbacks of the defense, and most collegiate middle linebackers enter the NFL as outside linebackers until they are smart or wise enough to shift to the leadership position in the middle.
Some of football’s greatest defenders in history have been middle linebackers, including Dick Butkus, Ray Lewis, and Mike Singletary. While they all had incredible athletic abilities, they were also all leaders of championship teams, and were just as cerebral as they were ferocious.
Alonso has filled the role more than adequately this season, with his best performance coming in week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals, in which he earned 22 tackles. Check the highlights. Alonso flies all over the field and makes tackles against receivers, tight ends, and running backs with equal efficiency. Here is a great example of immediate play recognition; Alonso leaps over the line of scrimmage to stop Cleveland Browns running back Willis McGahee from scoring a touchdown. This is the kind of play that made Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu a legend, and Alonso is making stuff like this look routine. He is also adept at pass coverage, here sitting back in his zone and reading Cam Newton’s eyes, before making a diving interception.
When I was in grade 9, I saved up my Food Basics grocery store money to buy a Brian Urlacher jersey. I would have been the first person in the world, or at least in my world, to acknowledge Urlacher’s dominance by wearing his name and number on my back. I bragged to my friends about my planned purchase, only to arrive at school the next week to see one of my friends wearing the very same navy blue Brian Urlacher ’54’. Treachery! How could I wear that now that someone else I knew owned it? It was probably for the best, as Urlacher’s jersey went on to become one of the NFL’s most popular for the next decade, and I didn’t really want a jersey that other people had, anyway.
But if you want to be the first kid on the block to own a Buffalo Bills Kiko Alonso royal blue ’50’, move fast. Pretty soon, everyone is going to know about this guy.