Luke Kuechly fits right in as middle linebacker, Charlottean

rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.comOctober 26, 2012 


Carolina Panthers (59) linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepts a pass by Seattle Seahawks (3) quarterback Russell Wilson meant for (24) running back Marshawn Lynch during third quarter action on Sunday, October 7, 2012 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. The Panthers lost to the Seahawks 16-12. Jeff Siner -


Luke Kuechly still craves Skyline chili from back home in Cincinnati but he’s gradually making a home for himself in Charlotte.

He’s found a routine, even if it usually means going home to his apartment after another long day at the stadium.

“I don’t get out that much,” Kuechly says with a small shrug of his shoulders. “I kind of hang in.”

But when Kuechly does go out, his linebacker colleague Jordan Senn says the Panthers’ rookie has trouble going incognito.

“Every time we go someplace, someone goes, ‘There’s Luke, there’s Luke,’ ” Senn says as Kuechly practically blushes one locker away.

If there’s a bright spot amid the Panthers’ 1-5 start and the triple dose of bad news this week that general manager Marty Hurney had been fired and cornerback Chris Gamble and middle linebacker Jon Beason were lost for the season due to injuries, it’s Kuechly.

The ninth player picked in the draft last spring, Kuechly was chosen for both his uncanny sense of chasing down ball carriers and as insurance should another serious injury befall the linebacker corps as happened last year when both Beason and Thomas Davis were lost for the season two weeks in.

With Beason now gone for a second straight season, this time due to shoulder and knee issues, Kuechly has become more than a replacement for Beason. He could be the Panthers’ starting middle linebacker for years to come.

Kuechly was effective playing weak-side linebacker when Beason was in the middle, but after watching the former Boston College All-American back at middle linebacker the past two games, coach Ron Rivera has had his suspicions reconfirmed.

“He’s better suited as a middle linebacker,” Rivera says of Kuechly. “He’s got a skill and he can play outside. He has a natural feel and natural leadership instinct for being in the middle and that’s probably the best spot for him.”

In his two games at middle linebacker, Kuechly has accumulated 34 tackles, 21 of them solo takedowns. That’s reminiscent of the numbers he put up at Boston College, where he became the NCAA’s second all-time leading tackler despite leaving after his junior season.

Pick a category – speed, size, strength – and Kuechly’s likely not at the top of the list of any of them. But bring everything together – the anticipation, the understanding of an opponent, the reaction time – and Kuechly excels.

He can shed blockers, but he’s especially effective at avoiding them, slipping off blocks to continue his pursuit.

For all of its technical elements, football remains basic, especially on defense. Find the ball and stop it.

“It’s one of those things people always asked at BC – why are you always around the ball?” Kuechly says.

He deflects the credit the way he can brush aside a blocker. He credits coaches at Boston College and with the Panthers for showing him what opponents are going to do. He also singles out the other Panthers linebackers for helping, each offering a different tip or piece of advice to the 21-year-old.

Watch enough film and practice enough and Kuechly says he knows what to expect. In the games, he says, it becomes second nature.

“Just get to the football,” Kuechly says. “That’s how it was in grade school, just get to the football however you can.”

Across the Panthers’ locker room, linebacker Thomas Davis is in his eighth season, completing a remarkable success story after three ACL surgeries. In 2008, before his first knee injury, Davis had 136 total tackles, using his speed and football sense to excel.

Playing on one side of Kuechly now with James Anderson on the other, Davis listens to the rookie make the defensive calls on every play. He has seen Kuechly make plays most other players can’t make.

“It’s one of those things you really can’t teach. He has the knack for it and a knack for getting to the ball,” Davis says.

There have been times this season when Kuechly has been knocked back, both literally and figuratively. The speed of the game and trying to do too much overwhelmed him early in the season opener at Tampa Bay. It happened again, to an extent, when he moved back to the middle linebacker spot against Seattle until he found his comfort level.

A year ago, Kuechly was playing against Duke, Wake Forest and Maryland. This season, he’s already looked across the line of scrimmage at quarterbacks Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Tony Romo.

“When I think of it, he’s a quarterback, he’s a running back, he’s a tight end. It’s not, he’s Eli or Matt Ryan or Drew Brees. He’s a quarterback and he’s going to throw the ball like all the rest, just like all the rest,” Kuechly says.

With 10 games remaining, Kuechly’s role has already changed. He now occupies the center of the defense.

After his departure earlier this week, Hurney said the Panthers need stronger leaders. Kuechly finds himself in position to be one of those leaders despite being the youngest player on the roster. He points to Davis and Anderson as good leaders and says he must earn the respect of his teammates over time.

It’s already happening.

“You don’t always have to be a vocal guy and always be the guy doing all the talking,” Davis says.

“You can lead by example, and his play has done all the talking he needs to do.”

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