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Q&A: Klein, defensive player of the year

Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein was a big reason for the Cyclones' six wins in 2011 and a second bowl bid in three years.

He was second in the Big 12 with 117 tackles and had 7.5 tackles for loss, returning his only interception for a score. For his efforts, the coaches awarded him a share of the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He talks about that surprise, as well as the changes this spring and some follicular chit chat, too.

How does spring practice when you make a bowl game compare to one when you're not in the postseason?

I really don't think our mentality really changes whether we make a bowl game or not. Athleticism-wise, in terms of being in shape, we're probably in the same shape. If you do make a bowl game you've got those three extra weeks of training underneath your belt, but as far as overall, I think we're at the same exact point we were in the year we didn't make a bowl game.

We do the same things in the offseason, so it's really no different.

What's it going to be like for you this spring playing without Jake Knott (shoulder surgery) on the field?

It's a little different. I know Jevohn (Miller) is in there, behind Jake. I know being a freshman working into his sophomore season, he's got a lot to learn but he's taking it day by day and trying to learn and improve every day. I know Jake sometimes is missed out there just in communication. Right now, we obviously have to communicate different with Jevohn on the field, but it's good for me because it also makes me take on that leadership role more and helping Jevohn adjust to everything that's going in and getting him ready to play.

You never know during the season what happens. We want Jake to stay healthy, obviously, but if an injury would occur, he's the next guy in line, so I think he's excited to get all these reps and develop as a player right now.

When you talk about communication being different, what's an example of where you'd see an explicit difference of communication between when Jake is out there and when Jevohn is out there?

It's just overall concepts and understanding a defense. I know Jevohn knows his assignments, but he still has yet to get to the point where he knows why he's doing his assignment. That's just a part of learning the game of football. I know me and Jake went through the same exact things when we were his age going into our sophomore season and being No. 1 guys.

With Jake, he understands everything. It's as simple of that. As I said before, it's just going to be a process for Jevohn to understand. Hopefully by the end of spring ball, he'll have everything down and we'll be able to keep our communication up and improve communication between each other.

With as much experience as you have, where can you get better this spring?

I can get better all over the field. I take it day by day and Coach (defensive coordinator Wally) Burnham has a saying: "If you get two percent better every day in some part of the game" -- and right now I want to work on tackling, which is obviously a big part of the game. It's important and again, though I'm a senior going into my last year and I understand the defense, I can always learn. I'm still learning as a football player and from Jevohn, he can understand the defense more, there's still things I don't understand that I can keep learning as spring goes on to put me ahead.

What was it like to find out you won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year?

It was amazing. I don't want to say I didn't necessarily think I had a chance to win it. Obviously, it's been a goal of mine to be noticed for performing well throughout the season. I was just really thankful. I know it's not just an individual award. It comes from the whole team. It's the whole defense working together and for me to get singled out I think is almost unfair to the rest of the defense.

My teammates know they're a big part of my success, though, and it'll continue to be that way.

How'd you find out?

I found out through my dad, actually. I was taking a nap after class before my next class and my dad actually called me. He woke me up and told me the news.

I was surprised, I'm not gonna lie. I'm just thankful that it happened. I'm looking to improve for next season and hopefully keep on my good streak of playing good football and hopefully get recognized again next year.

What was he like when he told you?

He was kind of mellow-toned. Just really, really calm and told me congratulations. He knows how much hard work I'd been putting in and to see it finally pay off was great.

He was a little emotional and so was I, but it was good to hear from him first. I would have rather heard from him first than anybody else.

When you made that push last year and qualified for a bowl, what'd you prove to the rest of the league?

Obviously that we're not the old Iowa State that was here four or five years ago before Coach Rhoads was here. We're a team that's going to compete every game. We play hard and we're striving to be the most physical team in the league. You can't count us out anymore, no matter what people say.

They can predict whatever they want, but we have our own goals and our own mentality. We know the kind of football we can play. It's just eliminating mistakes.

Coach Rhoads made a point of that at the start of spring ball. You win games by eliminating mistakes, and that's our main focus going into these next few practices we have, is eliminating mistakes so we can win not six games and get to a bowl, but 9-10 games. We want to win a championship here, and that's what we're striving for.

I became aware that Coach Rhoads was rocking a beard at the beginning of the spring. Is that thing still around?

I think it is.

There's been some debate on how often he breaks it out. I don't think I've seen it this full during the season. How often have you seen him with it? He'd be the only Big 12 coach with any facial hair, I'm fairly sure.

I think he's got a beard most of the time, at least some scruff. I think he still keeps it around a little bit when we go into the season.

Well, tell him to have that stick around for the season.

I'd enjoy it. I wouldn't complain.