ISU breaking in its new linebackers

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State lost three starting linebackers from its defense last season, including the Big 12 leader in tackles, Jesse Smith, who made 135 stops in 2009. Two more backups also graduated, leaving the Cyclones building new depth from inexperience.

The top four on the depth chart competing for the three starting spots have just 44 career tackles, less than a third of Smith's total in just last season. Soon-to-be sophomores Jake Knott and A.J. Klein are embracing full-time duty this spring on the outside, with juco transfer Matt Tau'fo'ou competing in the middle. Senior Jacob Lattimer, also a juco transfer who had just three tackles last season, is looking for an increased role this season, too.

"They’re inexperienced and not sure what they’re supposed to do," Rhoads said. "They are not playing fast. That’s a direct correlation between thinking because you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do, and doing it."

Rhoads has spent the spring trying to make sure that changes. Klein and Knott proved they could perform in a limited capacity last season, appearing in every game, but they'll make the jump to every-down players as just sophomores.

"Last year, as a No. 2 guy, I always had to know things, but I didn’t have to know things," Klein said. "Now, it’s more in-depth. You’ve got to know everything, you’ve got to know what’s going on, what the safeties are doing, the corners are doing. You have to know the whole defense, not just one position."

Knott is strapping in for the challenge in conditioning, playing without the knowledge that he'll have a handful of plays off between his appearances on the field.

"If you mess up on one little thing while you’re out there, that could be the one big play. You can’t take one play off, and last year when you’re playing just a couple plays, you could go all out for all those plays and then take a break," Knott said. "But when you’re in for the entire game, you’ve got to all out for every play like it’s your last."

Though this season could be full of mistakes common to young players, it could be the beginning of a stretch of three seasons with the same two numbers chasing down ballcarriers on the outside of the defensive line.

"The opportunity is there, we just have to make it happen. Coach is going to be looking to us to be guys that make plays, and I think we’re all just ready," Klein said. "We’ve been waiting our whole lives for this, and it’s a great opportunity."

Klein and the rest of the linebackers aren't the only ones who believe. It hasn't happened yet, but their coach is ready for it, and what he's seen this spring only makes him more sure the production will come.

"I’m confident that they’ll get there because they’re the kind of guys who will spend the extra time and effort to make sure they get there," Rhoads said. "The defense is hitting the heck out of people, and both sides are walking around a little dizzy now and then."