There was a big void in the middle of the University of Toledo's defense when spring football drills started recently.
No Anthony Jordan and no David Thomas, arguably the best inside linebacking duo in the Mid-American Conference.
"Any time you lose two guys like that, when a position goes from a strength to a question mark, you have concerns," UT defensive coordinator Tim Rose said yesterday. "But a concern doesn't necessarily translate into a weakness."
By comparison, Rose has no concerns at outside linebacker, where All-MAC selection Mike Alston and Mike Chamberlain return to their starting positions.
The 6-2, 210-pound Alston is likely to be an All-American candidate next fall as a senior.
"Mike's a special player," said head coach Tom Amstutz. "He's an impact player, a guy who can take over a game. He did that during the first half of [last December's] GMAC Bowl with three sacks. It affected how [Texas-El Paso's] quarterback was thinking the rest of the game."
Those three quarterback sacks gave Alston a team-best 9 1/2 sacks, and a team-leading 12 1/2 tackles for losses, last season.
"It felt really good to play that well and I think it stepped up the expectations that people will have for me and that I'll have for myself next season," Alston said. "The bar is raised even higher."
Rose said Alston "is probably our fastest defensive player. He's just so quick and so skilled."
Yet, when the dust settled on the Rockets' 9-3 season that was capped by a 45-13 romp past UTEP in the bowl game, Chamberlain had one more tackle - 54 - than did Alston.
So if UT can plug the hole between the two outside backers, the Rockets might have a chance to duplicate last season's top-20 national ranking in total defense.
Toledo is so solid outside that Steven Morrison, the top backup to Alston a year ago, has been moved inside.
"You can tell really fast if a linebacker has the intuitive quality needed to play inside," Rose said. "Steven definitely has the ability to go find the ball."
Morrison, Keith Forestal, and Marques McFarlin figure to compete for a good deal of the playing time inside.
Forestal will be just a sophomore, but Amstutz said he is "really having a great spring for a young player. I'll tell you this. I feel a lot better about inside linebacker now than I did when we got started five [practices] ago."
Alston said a lot of the credit should go to the two players, Jordan and Thomas, who have departed the program.
"They'll be missed," he said. "They were great guys and great leaders. But they taught the underclassmen well and those guys are stepping up to fill their shoes. Steven looks like he's been playing there a long time. I'm really surprised by how well the defense is coming together."
Alston takes over as one of the unit's leaders and he said preparation for next season won't end when spring practice comes to a close in mid-April.
"I'll be living here this summer and if the last two years are any example we'll have a lot of guys who stay in town to work out," Alston said. "The coaches won't be directing things every day, but we'll have two or three [on-field] workouts every week and do our running and [weight] lifting.
"That's how you can tell about leadership and how badly guys want to win. We'll come closer together. The dedication to next season will start then. The key to success is measured by what you do, and what you want to do, when the coaches aren't watching."
NOTES: Pro scouts from the 49ers, Jaguars and Dolphins were at UT yesterday to view workouts by some of last season's seniors. ... Amstutz said running back Scooter McDougle, who missed almost all of last season and never had a carry because of a knee injury, is "doing better and is working his way back into playing condition. He'll scrimmage a limited amount, though, until he's at 100 per cent."
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: