MEMPHIS — Iowa State senior linebacker A.J. Klein’s name “is loudly spoken in the history of Iowa State football, I would sure think,” Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads said.
Yet, it’s sort of a quiet loud. Klein played alongside linebacker Jake Knott for four seasons, and Knott received and deserved a lot of praise for his play before his college career ended prematurely in late October with a shoulder that required surgery.
Plus, Klein is the opposite of a toot-your-own-horn guy. He just plays. And practices. And studies.
Besides being a two-time All-Big 12 player and the Big 12’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, he also is a two-time Academic All-Big 12 selection. That means he has carried at least a 3.20 GPA. His major is kinesiology.
“I want to be a physical therapist,” Klein said Saturday at a Liberty Bowl press conference. “My dad’s been a PT (in Appleton, Wis.) for 20-plus years. It’s always been very appealing to me. Just being able to help others and give back to others.
“I will have to go to grad school at some point to get a Ph.D.”
Klein certainly is a candidate to be taken in the NFL draft next April, but doesn’t talk about that unless if asked. His defensive coordinator, Wally Burnham, thinks it’s not if Klein plays pro ball, but how soon he makes his mark in the NFL.
“He’s got some things he’s got to work on,” Burnham said. “He’s got to be ready to play with his hands a little bit more. They’ll get him right with that.
“He’ll play special teams. He’ll be able to run, make hits, make tackles, block. I think he’ll work himself into a good NFL player.”
Rhoads became ISU’s coach in December 2008. As soon as the NCAA calendar allowed him, he got himself up to Klein’s home in Kimberly, Wis., 20 miles from Green Bay. Klein had pledged to ISU when Gene Chizik was the Cyclones’ coach.
“We were fortunate to have that commitment,” Rhoads said. “But one of the first phone calls I made (after getting the ISU job)
was to him. Iowa was quickly pursuing him with the fact we’d had a coaching change.”
Aron Klein, who played for Iowa in the late 1990s and is now a vice president of finance at an Illinois medical center, is A.J.’s cousin. But Rhoads’ visit kept the Hawkeyes at bay for this recruit.
“It was just a genuine night spending time with good people — his family,” said Rhoads. “It reaffirmed for him that not only was his decision good to start with, it got better after the hiring of our staff.”
That sounds like bragging, but Klein said “He talked about what he planned to bring to his program, and everything he told me, he delivered on.”
Klein quickly moved up the depth charts at Iowa State, and has 342 career tackles. He also shares the NCAA record for most interceptions returned by a linebacker (four) for touchdowns. No. 4 came in late September against Texas Tech. He still has Monday’s game against Tulsa here for a chance to unbreak the tie with two other players.
But statistics haven’t distinguished Klein as much as steadiness and smarts.
“If he’s not the smartest football player I’ve ever coached, he has to be in the top three,” said Burnham, who has been a college coach since 1971, including stints at Florida State and South Carolina.
“A lot of football players know their positions. But he understands the full impact of why you do things. He knows the flow of the game. He understands football like a coach understands football, that’s the best way I can put it.”
Klein is the only Wisconsin native on the Cyclones. He said he’s the only player from Wisconsin in the Big 12. “I wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school,” he said.
Credit Chizik for judging Klein as Big 12-worthy. Credit Rhoads for doing likewise and keeping the recruit in the fold. And credit Klein for being, well, himself.