Kuechly, Newton push each other to improve

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJune 3, 2013 

Standing more than 50 yards from organized team activities on Thursday, media members couldn’t discern if Luke Kuechly cleanly intercepted a Cam Newton pass.

It zipped toward wide receiver Steve Smith about 15 yards downfield, but Smith collided with safety Charles Godfrey trying to make a play on the ball.

The ball deflected and hung in the air as second-year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly dove to the ground. He stood up, extending the ball in the air with one hand as if to signify he indeed had the interception.

“Oh yeah I got that one,” Kuechly said. “He’s going to say I didn’t but I got that one.”

Newton wasn’t available after practice, so Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked if he considered the pass intercepted.

“I can’t say,” Rivera said with a smile. “I have to be neutral.”

There’s a competition between Newton, the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Kuechly, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, at Panthers’ practices, one that involves neither young star giving an inch to the other.

“It’s an unspoken challenge for me not to throw a pick to him. Just personal, you know,” Newton said last week.

“We have our own way of communicating and challenging each other, knowing that you know I just don’t want to throw a pick to him. Anybody else – no I just want to protect the football. If I were to throw an interception, it’s not going to be in 59’s hands, just being that he has so much control over that defense.”

Since sliding from weakside linebacker to the middle of the defense after four games into the 2012 season, Kuechly has made Carolina’s defense his own. He led the league in tackles last year en route to earning the top rookie honor for a defender.

Kuechly has received even more praise since then. Last week an article on NFL.com said Kuechly could soon be the torch-bearer for middle linebackers in the NFL following the retirements of future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher this offseason.

At the risk of “rubbing batter on the cake,” Newton said last week Kuechly has not just taken a step, but a leap, this offseason.

And Rivera said communication on the defensive side of the ball during workouts is the best it’s been since he became the head coach in 2011. A lockout-shortened preseason in 2011 and injuries to former middle linebacker Jon Beason in 2012 means there was plenty of room for improvement, but Rivera said Kuechly’s communication in the huddle has “gone to the next level.”

“I’m just going to heap some more and put some more pressure on him,” Rivera said. “The way he communicates, the way he handles things, the way he does things, as far as the huddle and in the meeting and on the field and in the locker room is what you’d hope.

“He doesn’t take the praise, he heaps it on his defense. He talks about the defensive line and they’re doing this so I can do that. He talks about (linebackers) Thomas Davis and Jon Beason. He’s learned from those guys. He, to me, is the consummate pro. It’s not about him it’s about us. And that’s what’s impressive about him.”

Kuechly has long heard the good things people have to say. A three-time All-American at Boston College, Kuechly was the first linebacker taken in the 2012 draft.

Now, after having enjoying the best defensive season of any rookie last year, he’s hearing it again.

“It’s kind of like last year,” Kuechly said. “Stuff that happened in college, happened in college. Then you start a new year and that’s how I’m going about it this year. Last year was last year. We did some good things, we did some bad things. Now it’s this year.

“Now I have to improve on where I was. You can’t be stagnant. Obviously it’s a cool thing, but you got to keep moving forward.”

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