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Carolina Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein could be ‘Luke Kuechly 2.0’

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

SPARTANBURG The longer into training camp a team goes, the more difficult stories become to find.

So I cheated. I asked a member of Carolina’s scouting department to recommend a player who has performed well but received little attention for his work. He said he’d think about it and get back to me.

A day later he did. He named two players, the first of them A.J. Klein, the rookie linebacker out of Iowa State.

“He’s Luke (Kuechly) 2.0,” says coach Ron Rivera.

Kuechly, Carolina’s middle linebacker, was last season’s AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds Klein is 2 inches shorter than Kuechly and 10 pounds heavier.

“He’s a sharp kid,” Rivera says of Klein, whom the Panthers drafted in the fifth round. “He’s got some ability, he was a heck of a play-maker for (the Cyclones) and you can’t discount guys who can make plays. People say, ‘Oh, he’s not fast enough,’ or ‘He lacks certain athleticism in space.’ But for some reason guys like (Panthers linebacker) Chase Blackburn play for nine years in this league. A guy like A.J., if he can stay healthy, can have a nice long career.”

With linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis missing camp’s early practices with injuries (Beason is still out), Klein lined up with the first team. One of the players he worked against was center Ryan Kalil.

“His football awareness is really good,” says Kalil. “I think he’s tough, I think he’s quick, he’s fast. Yeah, he’s somebody that I’m excited to see what he can do and I think he’s definitely one of the more standout guys.”

Not everybody gives Klein good reviews.

Says Klein: “What I took away from (Friday’s exhibition victory against Chicago) is to learn and to keep correcting mistakes and know that I can be a better football player than I showed.”

What mistakes did you make?

“Just mental errors, alignment errors,” Klein says. “Everybody makes mistakes and everybody has to correct them. One of my goals is to correct those mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again. That’s how you improve being a defensive football player.”

Since people in the organization are willing to review KIein, I ask him to review the rookies the Panthers drafted.

Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei “is a special player,” Klein says. “He’s physical, he’s smart – I mean he’s a player. He will be a player. I know the coaches are expecting big things from him and with all the experience around him I think he’s going to flourish.

Is Lotulelei as strong as he looks?

Klein’s head nods before the question ends.

Defensive tackle Kawaan Short “is the same,” says Klein. “You could see he had a half a sack in the preseason game and had some pressures. Very good with his hands, good with his feet and great at defeating one-on-one blocks. With both of them in the middle, the D-line’s set for quite awhile. And here in Carolina, it’s definitely the best defensive line I’ve ever been around.”

Offensive tackle Edmund Kugbila has missed training camp with an injured hamstring. But Klein worked against him early in organized team activities.

“He’s a big dude,” says Klein. “I know he’s physical and I don’t like to engage him because he’s got long arms, long legs and he can track you down. For me it’s avoiding him. I think he’ll be moving forward once he gets his opportunity.”

Running back Kenjon Barner is “just an athlete,” Klein says. “Kenjon is definitely one of the shiftiest backs I’ve played against.”

Klein laughs.

“Man-to-man coverage on him isn’t fun because you think you have him sealed off and he’ll do some kind of back jump step, something I don’t even know what he wants to call it, but he’ll slip right past you if you’re not in tune with what he’s doing,” says Klein. “He’ll definitely be special on special teams.”

What about A.J. Klein?

“I don’t like describing myself because I’m very critical,” Klein says. “I think camp is going well. I think I’ve showed some good things as far as mentally being prepared and being able to play. But I think I have a long way to go. I hope to grow a little bit more, be more aware. I think that’s one area just because I tend sometimes to think too much and I could keep getting more comfortable and also getting faster and hopefully making more plays.”

Klein talks about players he’s gone against, trying to beat Kalil on a blitz and trying to get his hands on tight end Greg Olsen at the line and stay with him in coverage.

“I mean, you realize the bar has been raised,” Klein says. “Now it’s just me matching it and trying to exceed it.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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