AMES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa State had the luxury of leaning on one of nation’s best linebacker duos of Jake Knott and A.J. Klein for the past three years.
Both are now in the NFL, and how the Cyclones fill their void may be crucial to their success in 2013.
Iowa State has to replace a pair of first-team All-Big 12 performers from the same position group. Knott and Klein were the centerpiece of coordinator Wally Burnham’s defense — and both were capable of game-changing plays.
The Cyclones will instead rely on senior captain Jeremiah George, who was selected to the Butkus Award watch list, and juniors Jevohn Miller and Jared Brackens.
“It hasn’t been seen in previous seasons. Bu I’m very excited about having Jared Brackens next to me and working with Jevohn Miller,” George said Sunday during media day. “It makes my job as a vocal leader a lot easier when you have people leading by example all around you.”
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 219 pounds, George doesn’t have prototypical middle linebacker size.
But after three seasons of soaking up the lessons provided by Knott and Klein, the Cyclones believe he’s ready to anchor their defense.
George emerged as one of Iowa State’s better defenders in 2012, ranking third on the team with 87 tackles. George had four tackles for losses and three pass breakups in his first season in extended action.
George is one of the strongest Cyclones, bench pressing 485 pounds and squatting 550. He was selected one of Iowa State’s captains by his teammates, receiving the most votes.
“That tells you what the kids think of him, and he’s responded that way. He’s practicing with great intensity and productivity,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said.
Miller, a 240-pound weak side linebacker from nearby Brooklyn, Iowa, was a first-team All-State pick as a senior at BGM High. He recorded more than two tackles for loss per game in high school. After two years of spotty action for the Cyclones, Miller emerged in the Liberty Bowl loss to Tulsa with a career-high 12 tackles.
Iowa State’s third linebacker likely will be Brackens, who will finally get a chance to start after a pair of standout seasons on special teams. Brackens is capable of moving from linebacker to the secondary based on what the opposing offense is showing — a must in the wide-open Big 12.
Brackens “gives us something that we haven’t had. We’ve changed recruiting to recruit a (strong side linebacker) and a nickel (defensive back), and Jared is capable of playing both those spots,” Rhoads said.
Behind the top three starters are a bunch of young players. The Cyclones will likely need to use all of the by the end of the season.
Iowa State has four freshmen in their linebacker rotation, including Luke Knott, a converted quarterback and Jake’s little brother.
Redshirt freshmen Kane Seeley and Darius White are competing to back up George, while Knott is behind Miller. True freshman Alton Meeks, who’s already 6-foot-2 and 241 pounds, is listed as the backup to Brackens.
Rhoads acknowledged Sunday that he’s concerned about the youth in the linebacker rotation, but he singled out Luke Knott as someone who has shown serious improvement as camp has progressed.
Iowa State’s backup linebackers clearly need more time before they’re ready to contribute to a winning Big 12 team. But if the Cyclones can keep George, Miller and Brackens healthy, they should have a chance to be strong in the heart of their defense.
“They’re coming along. Right now they look like they’re seven days into camp, and we’re very glad we have 22 more opportunities before the opener gets here,” Rhoads said.