WVU football: Iowa State linebackers two of a kind
MORGANTOWN - They arrived at Iowa State at the same time in the summer of 2009 and realized immediately they had a problem.
A.J. Klein and Jake Knott were both true freshmen linebackers from the Midwest: Klein from Wisconsin, Knott from Iowa. Knott was maybe an inch taller and a few pounds heavier, but the difference was impossible to spot when they were in a uniform, and they happened to act and play alike in a helmet and shoulder pads, too.
They were roommates and they both played in every game that first season. They stayed together during road trips in the future. A teammate or coach couldn't go into the weight room, whether in the season or outside of it, and not see them working out together.
"One of us needed to make a drastic change, so he did it with his hair," Knott said. "He said it looks good, but I think he took one for the team there."
It began as a bet offensive lineman Kyle Lichtenberg made with Klein years back and he dared Klein to grow the flowing, shoulder-length hair that has since become the calling card that separates him from Knott.
"I decided to keep it going and it's been a pretty good run," Klein said. "I figured I might as well keep it."
Good thing, too, for they continued to mirror one another through the years.
Knott made 130 tackles as a sophomore and added four interceptions and four forced fumbles as a finalist for Big 12 defensive player of the year. Last season, Knott made 114 tackles. Klein managed 111 and 117 and was the Big 12's co-defensive player of the year in 2011.
Together they were being regarded as the best linebacker tandem in the country, one that is bound to provide a worthy matchup for West Virginia (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) in Friday's 3:30 p.m. ABC game at Jack Trice Stadium.
Over time, though, one thing managed to distinguish one from the other. Knott just could not stay healthy. Last season alone, when he made only three fewer tackles than the best defender in the Big 12, Knott broke his forearm in the spring, broke his hand and re-broke his forearm during the season and separated his shoulder in the Pinstripe Bowl.
"Not being able to hit in practice, I felt like that played a big role in not being as physical on the field, not shedding blocks like I used to, but that's what made me look forward to being 100 percent again," he said.
It had been since that first meeting with Klein that Knott had been totally healthy. He missed spring football this year, but was healthy, finally, for the preseason. Knott was there to celebrate with Klein when he returned an interception 87 yards for a touchdown against Texas Tech, the fourth interception return touchdown of his career, which tied the NCAA record for a linebacker.
Three games later, Knott re-injured the shoulder in a loss to Oklahoma State, but tried to get through it the following week. He wore a brace against Baylor Oct. 27 and made 11 tackles, broke up a pass and forced a fumble in a win against Baylor.
"Even when he's banged up," Klein said, "he still makes big plays."
The pain and the danger were too much. The Cyclones decided enough was enough for Knott. His season and his college career were both finished. A few days later, he received a hand-written note from Texas Coach Mack Brown.
"I try to send a note to any young man, especially one in our league, who I got to know by watching him play and admiring him through the years," Brown said. "This young man was a great player, but by all accounts he was a better young man. I hate that any young man who is as passionate about the game as he is gets the latter part of his senior year taken from him."
Knott gushed about the note on Twitter and it helped him stand tall in the low moments. Iowa State moved Klein to Knott's spot and Knott tried his hardest to mentor the next in line. Jeremiah George made 17 tackles in the team's first game without Knott.
"We had another body out there," Iowa State Coach Paul Rhoads said, "but you don't replace him."
The Cyclones (6-5, 3-5) lost their first two games without Knott. George totaled 34 tackles and Klein managed just 11. The slide ended with Saturday's 51-23 win against Kansas, when Sam Richardson, the third-string redshirt freshman quarterback, came off the bench in the first quarter and threw for 250 yards and four touchdowns.
Kansas, the league's second-best rushing offense, ran 48 times for 252 yards. In three games, Iowa State's defense has dropped from No. 37 to No. 59 in rushing defense, from No. 30 to No. 52 in pass efficiency defense, from No. 65 to No. 93 in total defense and from No. 26 to No. 30 in scoring defense.
"We've missed Jake Knott a lot," Rhoads said. "Jeremiah George has filled in where A.J. was playing and we moved A.J. to Jake's position and their numbers have been good, but we miss Jake's leadership, we miss his physical abilities and we miss his production."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.