AMES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa State's program has come to be defined by the fiery, passionate persona of coach Paul Rhoads.
The on-field identity of the Cyclones has been forged by seniors Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, a pair of once-overlooked linebackers who've blossomed into one of the top defensive duos in the country.
The Cyclones are off to their second straight 3-0 start behind a defense that's been better than most expected. They're 13th in the nation in scoring defense at 10.7 points allowed per game and they haven't allowed a touchdown in two weeks — a feat that hasn't been pulled off at Iowa State since the mid-1960s.
The performance of Iowa State's defense so far has only solidified Knott and Klein's reputation as like-minded program changers.
"Coach Rhoads has been preaching since day one about changing the culture. To be a part of that and to be the foundation of that is huge," Knott said.
It's hard to imagine where Iowa State's once-porous defense would be without Knott and Klein.
Rhoads promised the Cyclones during their first meeting together before the 2009 season that they'd be a winning program right away. It was a bold statement to a team that had lost the final 10 games of the previous season and yet still lost their coach, Gene Chizik, to a more high-profile job at Auburn.
But Knott and Klein, a pair of lightly recruited kids from the Midwest, helped Iowa State reach that goal immediately.
Knott grew up in suburban Des Moines and was considered a mid-level Division I prospect — though rivals Iowa and Northern Iowa wanted him to play baseball. Klein grew up in Kimberly, Wis., where his choices beyond Iowa State were Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Wyoming.
They became fast friends after being paired as roommates in the dorms, and each showed enough in fall camp that Rhoads felt comfortable ditching their redshirts and playing them right away.
Knott and Klein played every game as Iowa State beat Minnesota in the Insight Bowl to cap a surprising 7-6 season.
"It was kind of crazy how similar we were when we got here," Klein said. Our work ethic is alike. Our communication is alike, and I think that is because we're humble people. We come from humble beginnings. We weren't blown up. We were overlooked by a lot of teams and we wanted to prove ourselves."
It didn't take long.