Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads has no desire to waste time sitting around thinking of ways to replace linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott, the Cyclones' pair of All-Big 12 performers who both finished their careers among the top 10 tacklers in school history.
“You can't,” Rhoads said during Big 12 media days last month. “I mean, you don't replace those guys. You don't replace them from a leadership position. You don't replace them from what they've meant to our era of Iowa State football.”
The onus is on Jeremiah George to try.
And while George faces a long road to replacing their production, he can step up in their place as the face of ISU’s defense. The Cyclones hope as the season progresses and thoughts of the conference’s most productive linebackers come to mind, George comes to mind as well, as the next in line after Knott and Klein.
The Florida native has already proven he can be a quality starting linebacker in the Big 12, recording 87 tackles including four tackles for loss in nine starts in 2012. It was the first extensive action of his career and the senior is hopeful he can use what he learned from playing alongside Klein and Knott last season to become one of the Big 12’s top linebackers in 2013.
“One of the most important things I learned [from them] was how to prepare for a game,” George said. “During game week the preparation has to be high, you have to be locked in, you have to look for specific things, there can’t be any distractions. On the practice field you have to play at a high level with high energy. Then, when the game comes you’re in the same position you were on the practice field.”
George showed he had the potential to become even more than just a quality Big 12 starter during his 17-tackle performance against Oklahoma last season. His stellar outing came the week after Knott was declared done for the season due to shoulder surgery. All eyes were on George and he responded.
“Throughout that week, during practice, I didn’t feel like the weak link on the defense,” George said. “I felt guys knew I could come in and do my job so I was already confident going into the game. As the game went along, I relaxed and played, it just felt natural.”
He went on to record two double-digit tackle games in the Cyclones’ final four contests. His strong end to the season, combined with his performance against the Sooners, gave Rhoads and George renewed confidence that the senior linebacker could take his game to another level and approach the lofty heights reached by Knott and Klein during the final season of his Cyclones’ career.
“Was he a better player last year with those guys side by side him? Without a doubt,” Rhoads said. “But his most productive game is the game where he stepped up when Jake wasn't out there on the field. And I have zero doubt that he's going to be that kind of player for us this year.”
Said George: “To play at that level but still know I did some things wrong [against OU] felt amazing.”
Knowing he could perform at a high level while leaving room to reach higher heights has given him the confidence he can be the face of the Cyclone defense. He took that confidence into the offseason and began acting like one of the centerpieces of the squad.
“I knew immediately it was my time to take the reins,” he said. “The closer we got to the spring game guys could see I could do my job, run across the field and make plays, and maybe do more than what was asked of me without trying to do too much. Simply doing my job while also helping out. I think guys saw that I could be accountable and also help out. Guys started believing more in me and I started believing more in myself.”
Now he hopes to make believers out of the rest of the Big 12 as well.