Defense is in Panther Luke Kuechly's DNA

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 9, 2012 

  • The candidates How the top candidates for NFL defensive rookie of the year stack up through Week 13: Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay: 108 tackles, no sacks, 1 interception Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay: 41 tackles, no sacks, 5 interceptions, 1 forced fumble Bruce Irvin, DE, Seattle: 11 tackles, 7 sacks, no interceptions, 1 forced fumble Janoris Jenkins, CB, St. Louis: 52 tackles, no sacks, 3 interceptions (2 TDs), 1 fumble recovery Chandler Jones, DE, New England: 34 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina: 114 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 3 fumble recoveries

— Luke Kuechly was a sophomore at Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School when he first met Duke football coach David Cutcliffe.

Kuechly was a linebacker on a stacked St. Xavier team that was one season away from winning the state championship in Ohio. The team had older Division I prospects, and Kuechly was a skinny kid with wire-rimmed glasses, not yet heavily recruited.

“He didn’t look anything like a first-round draft choice,” Cutcliffe said. “But you know what he could do? He could play football.

“There was no question about it, ever.”

The football instincts, evident even then, allowed Kuechly to become the ACC’s all-time tackling leader in three years at Boston College, then made him the ninth overall selection by the Carolina Panthers in last year’s NFL draft.

Now, they have put him in the discussion for NFL defensive rookie of the year.

“Is he finalized yet? No,” Panthers linebackers coach Warren Belin says. “But he has some natural instincts of being able to read keys and see things that I don’t coach.

“Sometimes he’s so fast that I’m sitting there asking myself, ‘How did he diagnose that play that fast?’”

Steve Specht, Kuechly’s high school coach at St. Xavier says Kuechly’s ability is equal parts genetics and hard work.

The Bombers ran a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, and as a senior Kuechly played middle safety, which Specht reserves for the best player on that side of the ball.

“You try to coach kids up on big vision, reading the guards and the backfield flow,” Specht said. “But understanding the nuances (is) difficult for high school kids. It was almost as if it was already a part of Luke’s DNA.

“He saw things quicker.”

Kuechly was there for every film meeting in high school, and sometimes when he didn’t have to be. He would sit by himself in Specht’s office without a coach and watch tape, sometimes bringing in teammates to coach them up.

That, along with his natural abilities, amplified Kuechly’s effect on the field.

A freeing move

Kuechly wasn’t always a candidate for NFL defensive rookie of the year.

He played weakside linebacker for the first four games, with veteran Jon Beason in the middle. Against Tampa Bay in Week 1, Kuechly was flying across the field, but missing about as many tackles as he made. Rivera said at the time Kuechly was trying to do too much.

In Week 5, Kuechly took over at middle linebacker for Beason, whose shoulder injury would eventually put him on injured reserve.

“I think some people are Mikes (middle linebackers) and some people are Wills (weakside linebackers),” Kuechly said. “I want to be able to flow fast and get over the top of things, but at Will I think you have to sit back.

“When I got moved to Mike I thought I was able to run a little more freely.”

But to be as successful as Kuechly has been, instincts play as large a role as footwork and speed. Rivera, a former linebacker with the Chicago Bears, said Kuechly’s first step is as good as any he has seen.

“When he makes his first read it’s a good step,” Rivera said. “And usually it’s not one of those pop and go lateral. He’s gaining ground toward the line of scrimmage.

“He’s got a natural feel for where the ball is going.”

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn recalled a play where Kuechly’s instincts, footwork and quickness worked in concert against Kansas City last week.

The Chiefs lined up in an offset I-formation, and quarterback Brady Quinn handed the ball to Peyton Hillis in the backfield.

Kuechly broke through the line untouched, met Hillis 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and tackled the 250-pound back.

“He came out of nowhere and shot the gap, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa!’ “ Munnerlyn said. “He’s only 21 years old and he knows how to put on a performance that people will be like, ‘Wow, he doesn’t play like a rookie.”

A tackling machine

Through 12 games, Kuechly has more tackles (114) than any rookie, and more than all but three other players.

He is projected to finished with 152 tackles, which would be the fourth-most by a rookie since 1991. Of the three players in front of him, two of them – San Francisco’s Patrick Willis and Houston’s DeMeco Ryans – are former defensive rookies of the year.

Tackles aren’t an official statistic, and there are usually two tackling totals for players: press box stats and coaches’ film review stats.

Panthers coaches credit Kuechly with 147 tackles this season, putting him on pace for 196, which would shatter the team record of 176 held by James Anderson.

Part of the credit goes to Kuechly’s tackling style.

“A lot of guys are what you call flesh bombs – guys who just try to knock people over, like a ram, just try to knock them off their feet,” Rivera said. “You don’t see people wrapping, and because of that there are a lot of missed tackles in this league.

“Luke is a hit-and-grab-and-wrap guy. He’s got enough arm strength to pull a guy down by the arm, too. For the most part he puts himself in good position.”

Tackling is Kuechly’s strongest case for defensive rookie of the year, but he lacks the sack totals of other candidates. Kuechly’s only sack came last week against Kansas City. He has one interception, no forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

By comparison, New England defensive end Chandler Jones, a front-runner for the award, has 34 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles. He’s also on a winning team.

Kuechly said winning the award would be “cool,” but that he’d trade any individual award for team success.

That, his high school coach says, is typical Kuechly.

“In meetings with our juniors, we talk about flipping the switch,” Specht said. “We want them to help the grandma across the street. We want them to kiss him mom on the cheek and tell her goodnight. But when they step foot on the field we want them to flip the switch. And Luke’s the guy I use as an example.

“He’s without question one of the nicest kids that I’ve ever coached or been around, but he’s one of the most ferocious football players I’ve ever coached as well.

“That’s a gift.”

Jones: 704-358-5223; Twitter: @jjones9

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