AMES - Ever since first stepping foot inside Jack Trice Stadium as true freshmen three years ago, Jake Knott and A.J. Klein have been the heart and soul of the Iowa State defensive unit.
Now, heading into the 2012 season, the dynamic duo of senior linebackers and co-captains will attempt to take their games to another whole new level.
Head coach Paul Rhoads discussed his positive outlook for the defense and a wide variety of other topics during the annual ISU football media day Thursday morning inside the Jacobson Athletic Building.
"There's a great energy around our football program," Rhoads stated in his opening remarks. "I've said that and I'll continue to say it. Why? Because our kids play hard. They play hard and they play with a great passion for Iowa State University."
Despite compiling only a 9-16 league mark over the past three seasons, Rhoads was quick to point out the continued progress in his Cyclone program. Prior to Rhoads' arrival, Iowa State managed a total of three conference victories in its previous three years, including a winless 0-8 record in 2008.
"Now, how do we take that proverbial next step?" said Rhoads, who guided ISU to a 6-7 overall finish and a Pinstripe Bowl bid in 2011. "We have to elevate the play of our entire football team.
"We have high expectations for our linebackers. Our defensive line has to become more formidable. We think we need to be a run-first football team, and will work to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers. I also look for our offensive line to be more mistake-free. Anytime you make less mistakes, you have a better chance to win football games."
Last fall, Knott and Klein each started every game and accumulated a total of 231 tackles, including 11.5 for loss. The pair of first-team all-Big 12 nominees also combined for nine pass breakups, four fumbles forced, three interceptions, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
Both Knott and Klein were tabbed to four preseason watch lists, which includes The Butkus Award (nation's top college linebacker), The Lombardi Award (best college lineman or linebacker who exemplifies the values of legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi), The Bednarik Award (best collegiate defensive player) and The Nagurski Award (best collegiate defensive player).
"We just have to take all the watch list stuff with a grain of salt and can't get big heads or anything like that," the former Waukee all-stater Knott said. "We have a serious hunger on our defense to go out and win games.
"My shoulder feels great right now (Knott missed all of spring ball after surgery to fix a torn labrum in his left shoulder). Our coaches, trainers and doctors all did an unbelievable job of taking care of me. This is the first time I've had no nicks going into the season."
Klein, who was voted Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year by the league's coaches in 2011, offered similar thoughts.
"We have to be 100 percent committed and have everyone on board," said Klein. "Our experience is a huge deal, because is helps slow the game down. That's why Jake and I have been mostly successful and in the right positions to make plays."
Rhoads also mentioned that every veteran football player is academically eligible this season.
Junior running back Shontrelle Johnson has been cleared as well to begin practicing at full speed after returning from a neck injury he sustained last season against Texas on Oct. 1. Johnson rushed for 247 yards in four starts a year ago.
Fort Dodge graduate Levi Peters and ex-Iowa Central standout Edwin Arceo are also on the Iowa State roster. Peters is listed as a redshirt freshman defensive back, while Arceo is a junior backup kicker.
The Cyclones return 16 starters (6 offense, 7 defense, 3 specialists) to their lineup from last season. ISU's 2012 debut against the Golden Hurricane will kickoff at 11 a.m.