AMES — Iowa State’s two-time all-Big 12 linebacker A.J. Klein wants to go out a winner.
How much that improves the senior’s NFL Draft stock is debatable, but having 15 extra practices to hone his skills in advance of the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl against Tulsa certainly won’t hurt.
“Fifteen extra practices, you get a lot accomplished and really improve as a player over that time,” said Klein, who ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. pegged as a possible fourth-round selection in a Tuesday conference call.
Kiper said injured teammate Jake Knott would likely be a fifth- or sixth-round pick, but much remains to be determined — from the combine to the possible inclusion of more underclassmen in the linebacker draft mix.
“I think when you look at Knott, again, if you stay healthy all year it’s a plus,” Kiper said of the Cyclones’ sixth all-time leading tackler, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after playing one-armed in the Baylor win. “Knott’s had some injury issues at Iowa State over the years. He was a dual-sport player coming in — that’s why he (had few FBS football offers), he’s a dual-sport player. Very solid, reliable player when he’s out there. Was very productive and obviously one of their team leaders. I think he could still be in the mid-round mix.”
Klein ended up playing quite a bit at Knott’s WILL — or weak-side — linebacker position after the surgery.
He excelled at the SAM (or strong-side) spot most of his career and has sprinkled in some MIKE (middle linebacker) work, as well.
“(WILL) is a position that requires a lot of patience,” said Klein, ISU’s seventh all-time leading tackler. “It’s not as fast-paced as the other two positions, necessarily, as far as where I’m moving on the field. This extra time, for me, has given me time to kind of tie all three positions together and see how they differ and why the defense is designed the way it is. being able to say I’ve played three positions makes me a better player already, because I can understand the entire concept of the defense.”
Kiper said he likes Klein’s physical attributes.
“An athletic kid, has good sideline-to-sideline range,” Kiper said. “I think Klein may go a round ahead of Knott — a round or two, so I’d say Klein more fourth round, Knott more fifth or sixth, but there’s obviously going to be a lot off fluidity when we see what kind of underclassmen come out to join this group.”
It’s also obvious that spring-time NFL Draft status isn’t weighing heavily on either Klein’s or Knott’s mind yet.
“I think we ended up in a great bowl,” Klein said. “And everybody’s excited about that.”
Same goes for Knott, who vowed to help his teammates prepare mentally and physically any way he can.
“That’s my duty as a captain,” he said.