AMES, Iowa — No two players have meant more to Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads than A.J. Klein and Jake Knott.
The senior linebackers have been making plays in the middle of the Cyclones’ defense for years, and have provided Rhoads an impressive duo to lean on since he took over in 2009.
They have been at the center of Iowa State’s resurgence, making key stops on the way to two bowl games and four memorable upsets of ranked teams. Klein was the Big 12’s co-defensive player of the year last season, and Knott has made 312 career tackles. The team captains have started 32 straight games.
‘The biggest improvement in our football team in Year 4 is our maturity and it’s certainly showing on the defensive side with those two guys leading the way,” Rhoads said. “They lead the way in the meeting room, they lead the way on the sideline, they lead the way on the field and are very valuable players to the success we are having.”
As Kansas State coach Bill Snyder prepares to face them for the final time Saturday, he refers to them as “all-world linebackers.”
“They play extremely hard, and they are intelligent young guys,” Snyder said. “They fit the system so well, and they can play at maximum speed. They probably do not have any better 40 times than a lot of guys, but they play extremely fast. They play like four or five guys.”
One of K-State’s main priorities against Iowa State will obviously be neutralizing them. That won’t be easy, though.
Not only do they rarely come off the field – Knott played through a separated shoulder and a broken hand last season – but they can impact games in a variety of ways. Klein and Knott are both strong tacklers capable of stopping the run, but they can also drop back into coverage and make game-changing plays. Klein owns the NCAA record for touchdown returns off interceptions by a linebacker with four, and Knott came up with 13 tackles and an interception last week at TCU.
They rank in the top eight of the Big 12 in tackles, and once again have Iowa State in contention for the postseason.
“I remember them from last year,” K-State tight end Travis Tannahill said. “They are pretty-darn good, pretty fast and pretty physical. They are very good linebackers and we will definitely have our hands full.”