AMES - Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein made it very clear to members of the media Thursday that the Cyclone football program is no longer interested in playing the role of the underdog.
The preseason all-Big 12 honoree wants more. And he is confident that more can start this season as the Cyclones look to improve upon a 6-7 campaign which included a bowl game.
"We do not want to be seen as an underdog anymore," Klein said at Iowa State's annual football media day at Jack Trice Stadium. "We want to be seen as a team that can play at a championship level."
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
Iowa State head football coach Paul Rhoads addresses the media during the annual Cyclone Football Media Day at Huniker Auditorium inside the Jacobson Athletics Building in Ames. The Cyclones are picked to finish in the bottom half of a loaded Big 12 Conference this season.
Klein and running mate Jake Knott have played at a championship level during their careers at Iowa State. Both are on several preseason watch lists and both are preseason all-Big 12 linebackers. But that is just talk according to both Cyclone stars.
"I take all that preseason talk with a grain of salt to be honest," Knott said. "I will worry about it more if we win those awards at the end of the season. We have a serious hunger to get out and win games here. But everyone is going to have to do their part."
Klein had 116 tackles, two sacks and one interception last year, while Knott added 115 tackles and two picks. So Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads is not too worried about the production he will get from those two players.
Rhoads is concerned with trying to elevate all aspects of his team so the Cyclones can continue to take steps forward in creating that championship team Klein talked about earlier.
"There's great energy around this football team this year," Rhoads said. "Why? Because the kids play hard. Because ticket sales are up. Because we have improved our facilities a bunch. And because we have players on this team that can lead us to another successful season."
Rhoads has guided the Cyclones to two bowl games in three seasons at Iowa State. He pointed out Thursday that the three previous seasons before he came to Ames, the Cyclones went to no bowl games and won just three games in the Big 12 Conference.
The Iowa State defense is expected to be a real strength this season with Knott, Klein and an experienced secondary leading the way. Many of the team's question marks come on the offensive side of the ball.
The first big question is who will play quarterback, Steele Jantz or Jared Barnett. Both showed flashes of brilliance last year but neither one has separated themselves as the clear-cut starter to this point. Jantz threw for 1,591 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year, while Barnett passed for 1,201 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions but also had 437 rushing yards.
"I don't anticipate choosing a starter anytime soon," Rhoads said. "I may wait until right before kickoff before our first game. But all kidding aside, I think a good target date would be after our final scrimmages on Aug. 18."
Jantz said things are coming easier for him in year two of the program. But it still doesn't make the competition any easier to handle.
"It's frustrating for sure, but it is just part of playing college football," Jantz said. "I feel like I am more comfortable this year. We'll have to wait and see if I am any better."
It may not be a huge deal who the starting quarterback is because Rhoads and new offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham both want to be a run-first offense. And they have three quality tailbacks in the fold juniors James White, Shontrelle Johnson and Jeff Woody - who can make that happen with success.
"We have to establish who we are on offense," Rhoads said. "We're going to run the ball. We want to run the ball to set up the pass. We have much more depth in the running game, but we also need to get the ball to our playmakers. "
Rhoads said while the team will run the ball, Messingham will have free reign to call the plays, as long as he understands the team is run-oriented.
"The style will be the same," Messingham said. "We need to run the ball to be successful. And the QBs need to know that it is OK to take what the defense gives you."
Iowa State will once again have a tough challenge to get to another bowl game as the Big 12 remains one of the toughest conferences in the nation despite losing Missouri and Texas A&M to the Southeastern Conference.
Rhoads actually thinks the conference got stronger with the additions of TCU and West Virginia.
"We believe it's the toughest conference in football," Rhoads said. "We have three returning conference champions and six teams which won 10 games last year. I think TCU and West Virginia also will be ranked higher than Missouri and Texas A&M when the season starts."
The Cyclones open the season at home as underdogs to Tulsa. The home opener at Jack Trice Stadium will kickoff at 11 a.m. on Sept. 1.