The remarkable thing about A.J. Klein’s interception Sunday against Kansas City was not that the Carolina Panthers linebacker picked off Aaron Murray, but that he failed to score.
Klein tied an NCAA career record for linebackers with four interception returns for touchdowns at Iowa State, setting a Big 12 mark with a 53-yard interception return average.
So when Chiefs running back Cyrus Gray pushed Klein out of bounds after a 29-yard return to the Kansas City 8, Klein’s teammates let him hear about it when he returned to the sideline.
“He said he tried to stiff-arm the dude. I told him all the squats that he does in the weight room, he should’ve just jumped over him,” Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said, laughing. “He’s a great guy. I love A.J. He’s going to be a (heck of a) player.”
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Klein, the Panthers’ fifth-round pick in 2013, has the inside track on one of the outside linebacker spots. With veteran Chase Blackburn out with a back injury, Klein started Sunday and played the first three quarters of the 28-16 victory.
After making a few mistakes during the first half, Klein felt better about the way he played in the second half, even though he just missed a touchdown.
“I wish I would have got in the end zone. I know I’ve done that quite a bit in college. I saw the end zone, and I think it was the running back had the angle on me,” Klein said. “My thing was just get out of bounds, don’t fumble it, give it back to the offense and let them do what they do – score touchdowns.”
Five plays after Klein’s interception, reserve running back Fozzy Whittaker scored the Panthers’ final touchdown on a 1-yard run.
Klein played strongside and weakside linebacker as a rookie, and he started two games when Blackburn was sidelined with a foot injury.
Klein posted a career-high six tackles in his first start at San Francisco, throwing Colin Kaepernick for a 14-yard loss on Klein’s first career sack.
He entered his second season wanting to improve in pass coverage and got off to a good start by making a nice read and break on Murray’s throw over the middle to tight end Demetrius Harris.
“We had a pressure called, and I was just playing my coverage,” Klein said. Harris “crossed my face and I undercut it to stay with it, and the quarterback threw it. I didn’t think he was going to throw it – right place, right time.”
Klein called himself a “role player” who said he’ll be happy to chip in on special teams, even if he ends up being a full-time starter. Blackburn, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants, has taken a similar approach.
“Me and Chase, we understand it’s competition. But we’re teammates. We both want what’s best for this team,” Klein said. “Whether it’s him or me being called on our first regular-season game, who’s going to start, we’re going to be the role players.”