When Kristian "Kiko" Alonso was arrested the second time for alcohol-related offenses, in May of 2011, nobody was betting on his future in football. He had already embarrassed his college team (the Oregon Ducks) a year before, on a nightmare weekend for coach Kelly.
On February 19, 2010, Chip held a press conference vowing to get tough on discipline after two different Ducks, RB LaMichael James and kicker Rob Beard, were arrested on that same day. Just a few hours later, at 2:19am, Kiko Alonso was arrested for DUI. Kelly suspended him for the year, and then Alonso tore his ACL during spring practice.
By the spring of 2011, the Ducks had been expecting him to come back and take over at inside linebacker from star Casey Matthews, who had been drafted by the Eagles. Matthews was a tough act to follow; he had strip-sacked Cam Newton during the Ducks' late comeback in the 2010 National Championship Game.
Instead of anointing Alonso as Matthews' successor, Chip Kelly now suspended him indefinitely and put him on a strict set of behavioral rules. Kiko's position coach Don Pellum (now Oregon's defensive coordinator) got in his face for a long series of blunt talks. If Vegas had made book on him screwing up his second chance, the line would probably have been even money.
For whatever reason, Kiko listened this time. He pled guilty to a drunken break-in at a stranger's house, receiving probation and diversion, and most importantly, he stopped drinking. Alonso passed all of Kelly's tests to get his suspension lifted by season's start. (In contrast, All American cornerback/kick returner Cliff Harris was kicked off the team that December, as was starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli the previous year.)
As he focused on football, his level of play began to match his NFL-sized body (6'4", 242). Alonso is strong both in coverage and against the run, and the word "instinctive" is constantly used around him. He is an unbelievable playmaker with a large upside.
Alonso grew up in Los Gatos, California, the son of a Cuban father (raised in Puerto Rico) and a Colombian mother. His brother Carlos is an infielder in the Phillies organization, last year at double-A Reading. After his career ends, he hopes to open a gym in Puerto Rico.
Looking at his career, the impressive thing is that he has gotten better each year since 2011, even as the level of competition has improved, and there is no indication that he has peaked.
Alonso was a solid part of Oregon's rotation for the first time in 2011, 8th on the team in tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions. Solid but not amazing -- until the Rose Bowl against a Wisconsin team led by RB Monte Ball and quarterback Russell Wilson. Kiko was the defensive MVP, erupting for 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks and a late, diving interception that led to Oregon's winning touchdown.
His senior year, Alonso grew out of his natural shyness to take a leadership role on the team. He was voted second team all-conference (PAC-12) with 75 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 INTS, 2 FF. Again, solid but not something that would make an NFL scout drool. And yet, there was something more. Then-DC Nick Aliotti described Alonso's attitude this way:
"See the ball, get ball, eat ball. Eat the ball carrier. ... I love his mentality. And I think that he's become a more cerebral ballplayer being around Michael Clay. You can see just so much confidence with Kiko as the year has gone on. This guy is a very, very good football player."
(If the name Michael Clay sounds familiar, it's because the Eagles just promoted him to be their assistant special teams coach. He was their defensive quality control assistant last year, after his own NFL career fizzled.)
Most college players flounder in their transition to the NFL, with its vastly higher level of talent and strategy. Kiko Alonso is one of the few who blossomed, actually doing better than he did in college. It's a marker of the untapped potential that convinced Chip Kelly to surrender his best offensive player in return.
Kiko was third at the Combine among linebackers in the 3-cone drill (6.93) and 40-yard dash (4.72). He tied for first in the short shuttle with Xavier Gooden (at 4.18). He was projected as a 4th-5th round pick, but the Bills took him in the second, and he surpassed even that evaluation. Buffalo's GM Buddy Nix said this about his off-field issues:
"He did some things early and it was alcohol-related, never drug-related. It wasn't criminal, wasn't beating up women and that kind of thing. He drank too much."
On the field, Kiko's motor ran all the way up into the red part of the dial. A month into practice, the Bills had to give him some days off after their sports-science monitors showed he was running too hard. He had four interceptions in his first four games and ended up as the defensive rookie of the year (according to the Professional Football Writers of America) with 159 tackles on the year -- more than he had in all his years at Oregon combined.
His explosion onto the scene was so dramatic that he earned his own hashtag #legendofkikoalonso for a series of mythical, Chuck Norris-like exploits. ("He intercepted the same pass twice!")
Chip Kelly takes a lot of criticism for OregonBiasTM. He certainly has a number of ex-Ducks on his roster. But Kelly knows those players better than anyone else in the NFL, and he rejects 98% of them, including extremely talented athletes such as Colt Lyerla.
The striking thing about the players that Kelly selects is that they all have untapped potential, even in the NFL. Josh Huff, for all his rookie mistakes, is a sort of physical, halfback-type WR who blocks very well and is extremely difficult to take down, as he demonstrated on his 44-yard catch-and-run in the second Dallas game last year. Perhaps more importantly, he spent much of his time in college dealing with extremely difficult family issues that prevented him from reaching his full potential.
Alonso is a similar case. It's possible that he peaked with his stunning rookie year, but even 159 tackles and 4 INTs at ILB would be a big upgrade for the Eagles. (DeMeco Ryans had 45 and 1 last year.) The chances are excellent that his ceiling is higher than that, and he's also young and inexpensive. It breaks my heart to see Shady go, but if anyone is worth it, it's Kiko Alonso.