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Klein ready to earn role


CHARLOTTE – The first chance new Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein had Thursday after he arrived at Bank of America Stadium for this weekend's rookie minicamp, he walked onto the field and snapped some photographs.

Klein's dream of playing in the NFL is now within grasp, but he knows the cameras will be turned toward him this weekend and throughout the offseason.

"I haven't made the team yet," Klein said. "I still have to go to work and prove myself. Even though I was drafted, that doesn't mean everything is handed to you, especially not in the fifth round. I need to earn my spot and then go from there."

When Klein arrived Thursday to get fitted with equipment for the three-day camp that began Friday morning, he and the team's other four draft choices received a locker with a nameplate.  But for now, their space is in the visitors locker room, along with the team's 12 undrafted rookies as well as the tryout players taking part in the camp.

"I'm just soaking up as much as I can and am trying to make a good first impression," Klein said. "I want to show that I'm a hard worker and that I'm here for a reason, and that's to play good football. I'm just looking forward to being able to showcase that."

Klein played good football at Iowa State, totaling 361 tackles, including 117 each of his last two years. He returned four of his five interceptions for touchdowns. As a junior, he shared Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors with current Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander, then at Oklahoma.

Now Klein is starting over in a sense, joining a roster that features a trio of tackling machines at linebacker.

"I haven't met any of those guys yet, but I know of them. It's hard to not know of them," Klein said. "(Thomas) Davis and (Jon) Beason, I can learn a lot from them. They've been in the league like seven-plus years. And (Luke) Kuechly, he's a great player. I can learn from how he does things.

"I understand defenses and can play multiple positions, but also I'm looking forward to earning my keep on special teams. I haven't played the last two years, but it's something I really enjoy doing. I just want to be the guy that can make an impact early, not only on special teams but possibly on defense. I'm just looking to play."

There's little doubt that he's willing to work for it. A kinesiology-physical therapy major at Iowa State, Klein took this semester off to prepare for the draft, a decision that also will allow him to spend more time with the team after the rookie minicamp. He plans to finish his degree next spring.

"Driving home for the first round of the draft, I went to work out at my high school," said Klein, a Wisconsin native. "Friday, I worked out in the morning, went golfing in the afternoon and then watched the second and third rounds that night. I did take off Saturday, but right after I was drafted I was back in Ames, working out the last two weeks."

With his combination of smarts, skills and determination, Klein easily could have been a third-round draft pick. While he's motivated to make it in the NFL, his drive won't come from having a chip on his shoulder after so many NFL teams passed on him multiple times.

"I didn't think I was going to fall that far, but it's not an exact science. Nobody knows what's going to happen," Klein said. "I'm actually glad I did fall this far because I've landed in a great city and a great football team that's on the way up. I think it's a perfect fit."

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