Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Iowa State football players Jake Knott and A.J. Klein have done some serious studying this year. Outside the classroom, the two sophomore linebackers have been devoting time to learning what it takes to play in the NCAA BCS conference. So far, they've been getting straight A's.
Knott and Klein's skills have grown tremendously from last year when they saw action primarily on special teams and a limited amount of time at linebacker. In the process of learning their new positions, the two have welded together and have become the core of Iowa State's linebackers unit.
"They've come a long way this fall and they work so hard, they study the game so much, that there's no way they could not be getting better," said Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. "They have a desire to be really good football players."
The two linebackers played in every game last season as true freshmen and were both members of the Big 12 Honor Roll for fall of 2009. Driven academically and on the football field, their play is night and day from what it was a year ago.
Knott and Klein are at the top of the statistical charts this season in the Big 12. Knott ranks first in the conference in tackles per game, averaging 10.8. Klein follows close behind him with an average of 9.4 per game, fifth in the Big 12.
"It's amazing how far they've come [since last year]," Burnham said. "It goes back to that attitude of wanting to be good football players. They're smart students in the classroom, they bring that to the football study room and you can have all those things, but if you don't have a burning desire to be a good football player, you'll never be a good football player. It takes that something extra."
Knott leads the Cyclone defense with a total of 119 tackles this season, five of which were tackles for a loss and Klein has tallied 103 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. The similarities between the two linebackers doesn't end in the stat charts. Both Knott and Klein scale in at 240 pounds and Knott stands at 6-foot-2, just an inch over Klein.
"They're physical, they both run very well and both have good range," said Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads. "They're prototypical Big 12 linebackers when you look at them and their physical characteristics."
Along with similar physical traits, the brown-haired and blue-eyed pair has leadership qualities unique for underclassmen. Knott, a bit on the quiet side, leads other Cyclones by example. The Waukee, Iowa native has snatched four interceptions and forced four fumbles this season. His interception mark ranks sixth in the Big 12, and the number of forced fumbles he's created puts him at second in the league in that category.
As a weak side linebacker, Knott's responsibility includes playing in space and using his intuitive skills to read a pass, or sniff out certain plays. Rhoads refers to him as a natural at the position, and his ability to read plays has paid off for the Cyclones this season.
"A lot of kids just go out there and play," Burnham said. "And they're good football players but never really understand the game of football. Jake [Knott] sees the entire field and knows what's going on everywhere and he's a natural at it."
Klein, the more vocal of the two, sets the front for the defense and plays both strong side and weak side linebacker for the Cyclones. This season Klein has made three interceptions and tallied four passes defended.
Flip-flopping between the two positions, Klein plays an interior role in filling the gaps between tackles and drops into coverage. The Kimberly, Wis. native has made 41 solo tackles this season and assisted on 62.
"Every snap I'm thinking about doing my job," Klein said. "We have certain gaps to take care of, certain responsibilities before you go help somebody else. That's the main thing our defense focuses on is doing our job before helping someone else."
While Knott and Klein's jobs differ on the field, the two both agree they are interchangeable and would be willing to step into the other's spot if needed.
"I think the coaches have really brought us along," Knott said. "They taught us a bunch last year and carried that into this year and helped us out tremendously. A.J. [Klein] and I hang out a lot off the field and we're here together all the time watching film and working out together, so we've become similar in a lot of ways."
The way they walk, run and jump are similar. Even the way they talk make it tough to distinguish between the two. And if it weren't for the numbers on their jerseys, it'd be hard to decipher between the pair on game day.
"[Our progress] is hard to gage, but we're both improving day by day," Klein said. "I know we've both improved a lot this season and it's giving us more experience for next year and we want to build on that every day. We want to be the best linebackers we can be by the time we get out of here. "
Heading into the season there may have been concerns about whether or not two first-year starters could handle the test. The studying has clearly paid off for Knott and Klein and their grades are expected to get even better.
"I think very quickly this season they learned what it meant to play linebacker at this level," Rhoads said. "It was the one position I thought would progress the most in our defense and they have not disappointed me."
Iowa State plays host to Missouri Saturday at 6 p.m. in Jack Trice Stadium. A win over the No. 15 Tigers would make the Cyclones bowl eligible for the second straight season.