NEW YORK — A.J. Klein never was an obstinate pupil in his early days at Iowa State, but he wasn’t always the best football student in defensive coordinator Wally Burnham’s classroom, either.
Klein, a Kimberly, Wis., native, at times argued with his coaches over technique and other growing issues. Everyone could see his talent and growth potential at linebacker. But it took him time to understand that everybody involved with Iowa State football just wanted him to become a complete football player.
“He didn’t like coaching,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “He didn’t like to listen and apply it. That was not being mature, so he had to overcome that part of it and understand that we were trying to help him. We weren’t trying to be somebody all over him all the time.
“Early on he’d react and get puffy and say, ‘Hey, don’t get on me,’ or have that kind of attitude. Now he accepts it and goes on. He’s got that kind of attitude, and you can coach him as hard as you want to.”
Klein, a junior, has become a leader by example for the Cyclones and one of the Big 12′s best players. He was named the league’s co-defensive player of the year and finished sixth in the Big 12 tackles. He’s also Iowa State’s career record-holder for interception returns for touchdowns with three.
But it was a process for Klein to attain those levels. Along with changing his attitude, he had to learn Burnham’s defense while playing as a true freshman in 2009. It took him a while to absorb Burnham’s instructions and move around without thinking about every detail.
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“It’s not as much as fighting, it took a while for me to understand,” Klein said Wednesday. “Understanding coaching is a process all its own, coming in as a freshman and trying to learn everything. But I think things started to click for me on the field and in my play just by trying to implement that coaching as best I could in practice.”
Klein was a decorated high school player from Kimberly (Wis.) High School but didn’t receive many scholarship offers. He considered Wisconsin but felt slighted in the recruiting process. Ultimately he picked Iowa State under former Coach Gene Chizik. When Chizik left for Auburn, Klein considered opening up his recruitment.
“When he left, I kind of opened up my recruiting,” Klein said. “I was kind of on the edge of de-committing and looking elsewhere, just looking at my options. Coach (Paul) Rhoads called me Christmas Day, he talked to me for quite a while about why I should stay a Cyclone. Obviously everything has worked out beyond my what I could have imagined at that time.”
Rhoads said he immediately targeted Klein after replacing Chizik in early December 2008.
“He was a very important commit,” Rhoads said. “In fact, he was the first commit I went out and physically saw as the head coach at Iowa State. He started getting traffic immediately after Gene left, and I thought it was really important that I got in his home immediately and expressed to him how much we wanted him to be an Iowa State Cyclone.”
Klein has developed a bond with fellow junior linebacker Jake Knott to form one of college football’s best tandems. Knott, like Klein, also was a first-team all-Big 12 selection. The two were roommates as freshmen and talked about how they would compete as starters together.
“I don’t want to say envisioned but we had the expectation (of being good),” Klein said. “We always talking when we were younger of becoming the starters that we are now and turning into good football players, which we’ve done, and just continuing on that path for the next year.”
“I’d say you could definitely see how competitive and how much we wanted to get to that level,” Knott said. “We really put forth the effort to be that way every single day to get this way.”
Klein is a physical tackler at 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds. In four games he posted double-digit tackles, include a career-high 14 in a double-overtime upset of then-No. 2 Oklahoma State. He’s become a leader by example, Burnham said, and Rhoads touted how Klein instructed the scout unit to improve and give Iowa State’s first-team defense a solid look.
He’s now growing as a player and as a leader. He’s now accepting all coaching, and he says the “sky’s the limit.” Perhaps more importantly, so does Burnham.
“If he’ll keep working, keep improving, he’s got a chance to be an All-American at Iowa State,” Burnham said. “Maybe have a chance to play in the NFL. He’s got the ability to do all those things.
“That’s part of his goals. That’s on his bucket list.”