A.J. KLEIN HAD JUST SETTLED DOWN FOR A POWER NAP LAST DECEMBER WHEN HIS CELLPHONE rang. Len Klein had news, and the news was very good: His son had just been named the Big 12 Co--Defensive Player of the Year. "There [were] some emotional words that passed between us, and I was really happy because I would not have wanted to hear [the news] from anyone else," says Klein, who shared the honor with Oklahoma defensive end Frank Alexander. "The award is a stepping-stone. That's how I look at it, because I want to get better."
In a conference featuring Heisman hopefuls and surefire first-round picks, Klein, a physical tackler at 6' 2" and 244 pounds, has established himself as the best linebacker in the Big 12 despite barely registering on NFL draft boards. Last season he ranked second in the conference with 116 tackles. The senior has 12 career games with 10 or more tackles, including one last Nov. 18 when Iowa State shocked No. 2 Oklahoma State 37--31 in double overtime. Klein finished the game with 14 tackles and had a quarterback hurry that led to an interception. He also has a knack for the pick six: His 78-yard return for a touchdown at Missouri last year was the third return touchdown of Klein's career, making him Iowa State's alltime leader in the category.
Klein (the A.J. stands for Aaron James) was originally recruited to Ames by Gene Chizik, and when Chizik left for Auburn, Klein seriously considered decommitting. He says new coach Paul Rhoads won him over during a Christmas Day call in 2008. "I-State is a really family-oriented place, and it's a small town, which I liked," says Klein, who grew up in Kimberly, Wis., a town of 6,000 in the eastern part of the state. (During his career at Kimberly High the Papermakers went 37--1.) "I just had the [same] connection that I had with my hometown."
Over the past three seasons Klein has grown under the tutelage of linebackers coach Wally Burnham, who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama and coached Derrick Brooks and Marvin Jones while at Florida State. But the relationship has not been easy. "We had some communication gaps, but about a year ago he decided that he would start to listen better," says Burnham, who saw Klein improve from a true freshman with 17 tackles to a junior who earned the team's MVP award. "He just didn't like to be coached real hard, and he had to get used to that."
Any profile of Klein must also give a nod to his close friend and linebacking partner Jake Knott, a second-team All--Big 12 player. The two communicate constantly on the field, and after Knott dislocated his shoulder twice against Baylor last season, Klein popped it back into place in the middle of the game. "Being a kinesiology major and [planning on] going into physical therapy, I said, 'Jake, you have to get this thing checked out,'" recalls Klein. "But him being the hard-nosed Jake Knott that he is, he had me pop it back in on the field."
As for Klein's potential to play on Sundays, Burnham thinks that Klein can stick with the right club because of his intelligence, size and deceptive speed. "If he really makes up his mind to go for it, he can achieve it," Burnham says. Asked the same question, Klein admits he has thought about the NFL but that it's not prominent in his mind. "I never want to look too far into the future," says Klein. For now, he'll concentrate on the next stepping-stone.