Panthers second-year linebacker A.J. Klein is looking to expand his role on the defense.
He believes his experience from last season will help him become a leader at linebacker, where he is learning all three linebacker positions.
“I am a lot more comfortable,” Klein said Wednesday. “One year in the playbook and being in the system makes a big difference.”
Klein, who had a major role on special teams, played in all 16 games last season – including two starts when outside linebacker Chase Blackburn was injured. He finished the season with 21 tackles and two sacks.
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His first career sack was a 14-yard takedown of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in Week 10. That game, which was pivotal to the Panthers’ playoff run, also was Klein’s first career start. He credits his success to the veterans who have helped him learn.
“All of our guys in our room (have helped me),” he said. “Whether it is Thomas (Davis), Luke (Kuechly), or Chase (Blackburn), you can pick any one of them and they know the defense. They are very talented.”
Klein is competing with Blackburn for the starting weakside spot and also backing up Kuechly in the middle.
Panthers linebacker coach Al Holcomb is seeing improvement from his fifth-round project. He views Klein’s confidence as an attribute that will help the second-year linebacker take control of the defensive huddle.
“He is definitely more confident,” Holcomb said. “When he is out there taking reps at middle linebacker, he is taking command.”
Holcomb thinks Klein has a lot of potential. With the loss of veterans Jon Beason and Jordan Senn, Klein has been thrust into key defensive battles early.
“It’s all about competition,” Holcomb said. “I consider A.J. a starter. He’s done a good job and he’s going to continue to earn the right to get playing time for us this season.”
At Iowa State, Klein earned multiple Big 12 Conference first-team spots and a share of the 2011 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award – an award he split with Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander, who played at Oklahoma.
Still, Klein sees areas where he can improve.
“I’ve been working on my zone coverage and understanding the defense from multiple positions,” he said. “Just having better awareness in my pass drops. That’s what I have been trying to work on the most in OTAs and minicamp.”