ROAD TO THE LIBERTY BOWL: Klein settles in as defense hones craft


Photo: Huiling Wu/ Iowa State Daily

Linebacker A.J. Klein tackles TCU wide receiver Brandon Carter on Saturday, Oct. 6, at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas. Klein had nine solo tackles including one sack in the 37-23 victory against TCU 

Jake Calhoun

For A.J. Klein, this is it.

The senior linebacker will be playing his final game in cardinal and gold in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31 against Tulsa with one more shot to add to his illustrious career.

Ever since fellow first-team All-Big 12 linebacker Jake Knott received season-ending shoulder surgery in late October, Klein had been moved from his usual positions of Mike and Sam linebacker to an unfamiliar post at Will.

“It’s a position that requires a lot of patience,” Klein said. “It’s not as fast-paced as the other two positions necessarily as far as where I’m moving on the field.”

In his four games at Will, Klein has made 31 of his 98 total tackles (32 percent) and was in single digits in three of those games until tallying 14 in the regular season finale against West Virginia. This extra time between then and the Liberty Bowl, however, will give Klein more time to prepare.

“This extra time for me is giving me time to tie all three positions together — how they’re different and why the defense is designed the way it is,” Klein said. “Being able say that [I’ve] played three positions, it makes me a better player already just because I can understand the entire concept of the defense.”

The Cyclones (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) will be facing a Tulsa team that won the Conference USA title this season. The two teams played each other on Sept. 1 in the season opener with Iowa State winning 38-23.

Typically, teams drastically change their game plans throughout the season according to their schedule. However, Tulsa (10-3, 7-1 C-USA) hasn’t changed much.

“I wouldn’t say they’re doing much different, they’re just doing it better,” said linebacker Jeremiah George of Tulsa. “They’re running downhill a lot better than what they did when they played us.”

While Klein is getting more accustomed to Will, ISU coach Paul Rhoads said has also been getting reps at Mike and Sam.

“This is a game we played in 40-some snaps of base defense and with [Klein] at Sam linebacker and Jeremiah at the Mike linebacker, we’re a pretty good group with that twosome in those places,” Rhoads said.

The defense will be getting a boost with the three weeks of extra preparation time, giving Durrell Givens and Jansen Watson an opportunity to return to the field. Both Givens and Watson sat out the season finale on Nov. 23.

“You can’t lose that many people that have gotten all those reps in practice and got all those reps in games and expect to be where you need to be,” said defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. “You get those two kids back, and it’s going to make us stronger.”

Givens sustained an ankle injury against Kansas, while Watson sustained an MCL injury Nov. 3 against Oklahoma. Both have not seen playing time since their injuries.

Kickoff will be at 2:30 p.m. CST from Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tenn. The game will be shown on ESPN.