PANTHERS MIDDLE LINEBACKER LUKE KUECHLY IS NO LONGER AN EXCELLENT PLAYER ON A BAD TEAM—HE'S AN EXCELLENT PLAYER ON A SUDDENLY CAPTIVATING SLEEPER
THE DEFEAT was three days old, but it still weighed on Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Quarterback Cam Newton had committed four turnovers in a 22--6 loss to the Cardinals on Oct. 6, and Carolina had fallen to 1--3. Rivera looked careworn and weary ... until the subject turned to Luke Kuechly.
"He's got a great first step, one of the best I've ever seen," said Rivera of his second-year middle linebacker, the linchpin of the NFL's second-stingiest defense (13.7 points per game). "A lot of guys go sideways. Luke, if you watch him, is going this way." Rivera is in a corridor outside his office, taking a diagonal jab step toward an imaginary ballcarrier.
"Put your hands up," he says. "Try to block me." Rivera is a former Bears linebacker who remains passionate about the position. In this impromptu drill he pantomimes Kuechly (pronounced KEEK-lee), evading a blocker. "Luke has a slither to him—an ability to dip that shoulder and get in beneath the hands," Rivera says as he dips and steps, dips and steps. A clean-cut, youthful passerby stops briefly, looking on with a slight smile before disappearing into a meeting room, carrying a container of Thai food. Kuechly will be in there for the next two hours, watching video.
"There he goes," says Rivera. "Clark Kent. The most unassuming guy I've ever been around."
THE NEARSIGHTED Kuechly has been hearing Clark Kent comparisons since high school. But he didn't just look smart, says Steve Specht, his coach at St. Xavier in Cincinnati. "He was the most cerebral player I ever coached."
At 6'3" and 235 pounds, Kuechly has exceptional speed for an inside linebacker (he ran a 4.58-second 40 at the 2012 NFL combine) and average strength. But all anyone wants to talk about is his brain. He has a knack for knowing where the ball will be and then blazing a trail to it. Reflexively (instinctively?), coaches describe him as "instinctive."
But that's a bit of a cop-out. Instincts are innate and unlearned. Kuechly's ridiculous production—his 164 tackles last season led the NFL and made him a slam dunk for Defensive Rookie of the Year—springs from both his physical skills and his ability to process information. He's so comprehensively prepared that it only looks as if he's relying on instinct. Which is different from relying on instinct.
Check out his tackle for a loss at Arizona: Just before the snap, Cardinals running back Andre Ellington went in motion, right to left. After faking a handoff to Rashard Mendenhall, Carson Palmer handed off to Ellington. Smelling reverse all the way, Kuechly strung the play out to the left sideline, where Ellington, rather than endure a collision, hit the deck, losing a yard.
Watching film the next day, outside linebacker Chase Blackburn asked him, "What did you see? When did you know it was a reverse?"
Here's what Kuechly told him: "It was a time in the game when it felt like they might run a funky play. Ellington played at Clemson when I was at [Boston College]. I knew he was a speed guy, knew what he had. When he went in motion, he was moving"—running with purpose, as opposed to Mendenhall, whose desultory body language was Kuechly's clue that he wasn't getting the ball. ("His first step was kind of, Let's get this over with.") It wasn't an instinctive play so much as it was an intelligent one.
Befitting a Mike linebacker, Luke is the middle of Tom and Eileen Kuechly's three sons. John, 24, is an Ohio State grad now in the Army Reserve; Henry, a sophomore basketball player at St. X. Tom runs an automotive business started by his father, John, in 1954, after John served as a Marine during the Korean War. According to his 2004 obituary in The Cincinnati Enquirer, John was "a tinkerer, a recycler and an artisan" who "helped organize the Kiwanians' Thanksgiving food drive and taught computer skills to the Sisters of Mercy." His values of thrift and charity were passed down through the generations—as was a sense of military discipline.
"We had chores," recalls Luke, "and you did your chores. You kept stuff clean and did as you were told." Luke and John both worked at J&N warehouse during summers in college. Some mornings Luke was tired and didn't feel like going in, prompting a one-word reply from his old man:
Tough doesn't begin to describe Luke's freshman year at Boston College. Not long after he committed, Eagles linebacker Mark Herzlich, the returning ACC defensive player of the year, was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in his left leg. Herzlich, who made a full recovery and now plays for the Giants, missed that season while undergoing treatment. In spring ball middle linebacker Mike McGlaughlin tore an Achilles. At 18, a season after going up against the likes of Colerain High and Archbishop Moeller, Kuechly was lining up against Notre Dame and USC.
"After two or three weeks on campus, learning the defense, he was ahead of almost all the linebackers," says McGlaughlin. The coaches trusted Kuechly enough to start him at Mike. "You had to know the game. You were the general," says McGlaughlin. "Luke did it without missing a beat."
When McGlaughlin got healthy, Kuechly moved outside. "I'd see a flash," McGlaughlin recalls, "and it was number 40 running by everybody. It was mind-blowing."
Kuechly finished the first season with 158 tackles, the second-highest total in the nation, including a dozen in BC's win over Florida State, 19 against North Carolina and 16 against USC in the Emerald Bowl.
Boston College hung tough against the Trojans that night, trailing by four points in the fourth quarter before losing 24--13. Afterward, Kuechly took a while to get back to the locker room. When he walked in, defensive coordinator Bill McGovern asked where he'd been. "He's standing there, looking like he got his hand caught in the cookie jar. He's embarrassed. He says, 'I had to stay out there for something.'
"He's holding his helmet behind his back, where I won't see it. Inside the helmet is his trophy for being the game's defensive MVP." While he cannot be accused of hiding his lamp under a bushel, he is not above concealing a trophy in his headgear.
IN HIS sophomore season Kuechly led the nation in tackles, with 183, and he repeated that feat as a junior, racking up 191. He won the Butkus Award, given to the country's best linebacker. He was projected as a first-round pick. He entered the draft—but only after assuring his parents that he'd return to BC to complete his marketing degree. (He took five classes last spring and needs just three more to graduate.)
Scouts were enticed by his versatility. "What usually knocks inside linebackers down is their inability to stay on the field for three plays," said NFL Network draftnik Mike Mayock. Kuechly, he judged, was the opposite. "I think he's the best pure zone drop pass linebacker I've ever seen on tape."
He got that right. Taken by Carolina with the ninth pick, Kuechly has started all 23 games of his NFL career. He—and the Panthers' defense—have played at another level since Kuechly moved from Will to Mike linebacker in Week 5 last season. Since then, Kuechly has played in 1,090 of a possible 1,095 snaps. With the defense keeping Carolina in every game—it has yet to yield a first-half touchdown—the Panthers' offense has lately come to life. In the team's last three games, all wins, Newton has completed 77.3% of his passes for six touchdowns and no picks. (He's run for two more scores.) The QB has displayed the confidence and maturity that could turn Carolina into a very dangerous team.
Kuechly, meanwhile, remains a deceptively dangerous player. His tackles are slightly down this season, as teams send linemen to the second level to neutralize him. That, in turn, has freed other Panthers to make plays. But based on Kuechly's improved pass coverage and number of "stops" (tackles that prevent an offensive success), he's one of the NFL's best inside linebackers according to Pro Football Focus. Like Clark Kent, there's more to him than meets the eye.
"I'm not a thumper," Kuechly says. "There are some guys that can go in there and bang bodies [with the blocker], and that's how they get separation. They're good at it. But that's not necessarily my best quality." His game is predicated on "avoiding blocks in the right way. When you can avoid blockers and get to the right spot, it works just as well."
Kuechly's ability to "set up" blockers is particularly impressive. He can see the running back, but the hogs clearing the holes can't. "So if I'm tracking outside," he explains, "and the back is slow, what I can do is move a little quicker" away from the back. This, in turn, forces the 300-pounder trying to block Kuechly to stretch to the outside. That opens a gap between offensive linemen, a crease into which Kuechly can then cut back—often to make the tackle.
"He's incredibly crafty," says Carolina's Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. The center took an immediate shine to Kuechly, who approached his first NFL season the same way he approached his freshman year at BC: "Come in, keep your mouth shut, be nice to everybody, ask questions and work hard."
Kalil and his wife have two daughters and are expecting a third child, a son, this winter. When Kalil met Tom Kuechly in September, he suggested they hang out a little during the off-season. Why? "So I could figure out how to raise my son to be like Luke."
HAVE YOU got a minute?" Rivera asks a visitor. Of course he's busy—the man is an NFL coach. But he can always make time to cue up a few of Kuechly's greatest hits. Slipping into a meeting room, Rivera clicks on last season's 17--6 win over the Raiders. "Check this one out," says the coach. Running back Darren McFadden sweeps left, Kuechly mirroring him across the line of scrimmage. "Look, McFadden tries to stiff-arm him; Luke knocks the arm out, turns him, drives him into the ground. Now watch this!"
Somersaulting to his feet, Kuechly smacks his palms to his helmet, unleashing a primal roar. Rivera and his staff love this clip as much for that bit of uncharacteristic woofing as they do for the punishing tackle. A tame demonstration by NFL standards, it was, for Kuechly, positively Ochocincovian. Of course he knows how to celebrate. It's just not his first instinct.
KUECHLY'S GAME IS PREDICATED ON "AVOIDING BLOCKS IN THE RIGHT WAY. WHEN YOU CAN AVOID BLOCKERS AND GET TO THE RIGHT SPOT, IT WORKS JUST AS WELL," HE SAYS.
Find out how Kuechly's Carolina defensive teammates are faring in Greg Bedard's weekly Pressure Points rankings, and read up on the AFC's defensive rising-star equivalent, Geno Atkins, at TheMMQB.com
Photograph by JOE CAMPOREALE/USA TODAY SPORTS
BASIC INSTINCT? Kuechly's physical skills are exceptional, but his ability to stay a step ahead of the offense is what makes him one of the best at his position.
GARY BOGDON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MIDDLE MANAGER With Kuechly (59) in the Mike position, the Panthers have not yielded a first-half touchdown all season.
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