AMES, Iowa – 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-60s.
The performance of Iowa State's defense so far has solidified Knott and Klein's reputation as like-minded program changers.
"Coach Rhoads has been preaching since Day 1 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 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.
The pair earned starting jobs in 2010 and they've been swarming the football together ever since.
Knott was second in the Big 12 in tackles and Klein was fifth. Knott also picked off four passes and forced four fumbles, while Klein became the first Iowa State player in 15 years to return interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive weeks.
In 2011, Knott was a first-team All-Big 12 selection with 115 tackles, four more forced fumbles and a pair of picks out of the middle linebacker spot. Klein did him one better with 116 tackles and the Big 12's co-defensive player of the year award.
"It's easy to go out there and have a guy that you trust on and off the field playing next to you," Knott said.
The pair often come off as interchangeable, so much so that Knott said he was confused with Klein while getting a flu shot earlier this week.
Knott and Klein play a similar brand of hard-nosed, physical football, and have developed a connection that makes them better together than apart.
"The understanding of the entire defense, not just a single position, allows us to be a little more active in the passing game. It all comes with film study and just experience," Klein said. "With our communication and our bond that we've developed over the past couple of years, it's the kind of thing we had to do so we could perform better."
Their playmaking skills and hard-working mentality has rubbed off on a defense that's often was on the wrong end of blowouts in the past.
The Cyclones opened the season by allowing 16 points in the first quarter to Tulsa. But Iowa State has only allowed 16 points since then — and Knott's leaping tip and interception of Iowa's James Vandenberg with 1:11 left provided the Cyclones with their signature moment thus far.
About the only difference between Knott and Klein is that Knott sports a Mohawk, while Klein has opted for shoulder-length locks.
Other than that, they're eerily similar and equally successful.
The rest of the Cyclones have followed them.
"I think they just play hard. They're serious. They like to prepare," Rhoads said.