SPARTANBURG — The longer into training camp a team goes, the more difficult stories become to find.
So I cheated. I asked a member of Carolinas scouting department to recommend a player who has performed well but received little attention for his work. He said hed 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.
Hes Luke (Kuechly) 2.0, says coach Ron Rivera.
Kuechly, Carolinas middle linebacker, was last seasons AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds Klein is 2 inches shorter than Kuechly and 10 pounds heavier.
Hes a sharp kid, Rivera says of Klein, whom the Panthers drafted in the fifth round. Hes got some ability, he was a heck of a play-maker for (the Cyclones) and you cant discount guys who can make plays. People say, Oh, hes 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 camps 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 hes tough, I think hes quick, hes fast. Yeah, hes somebody that Im excited to see what he can do and I think hes definitely one of the more standout guys.
Not everybody gives Klein good reviews.
Says Klein: What I took away from (Fridays 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 dont happen again. Thats 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. Hes physical, hes smart I mean hes 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 hes going to flourish.
Is Lotulelei as strong as he looks?
Kleins 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-lines set for quite awhile. And here in Carolina, its definitely the best defensive line Ive 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.
Hes a big dude, says Klein. I know hes physical and I dont like to engage him because hes got long arms, long legs and he can track you down. For me its avoiding him. I think hell 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 Ive played against.
Man-to-man coverage on him isnt fun because you think you have him sealed off and hell do some kind of back jump step, something I dont even know what he wants to call it, but hell slip right past you if youre not in tune with what hes doing, says Klein. Hell definitely be special on special teams.
What about A.J. Klein?
I dont like describing myself because Im very critical, Klein says. I think camp is going well. I think Ive 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 thats 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 hes 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 its just me matching it and trying to exceed it.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen