Humble Panthers LB Kuechly earning respect, honors

Dec. 28, 2013 @ 04:57 AM

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott remembers the first time Luke Kuechly made an impression on him.

It was in the team's dining hall when Kuechly, then a rookie, stood up from the table and looked at the veteran linebackers seated around him and asked politely, "Can I get anybody anything to drink?"

It caught McDermott's attention right away.

"It's a small thing, but you don't find that around society today," McDermott said. "He's just a class act through and through, with great core values. He was raised well by his parents."

Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said while he's impressed with what Kuechly has done on the field in his first two seasons, it doesn't begin to compare to what he sees in the locker room.

"He is so incredibly humble," Edwards said. "Nothing is about him. It's about the team. And guys see that. I really think that's the thing about this kid — he's so humble he really has no idea how good he is."

Others certainly do.

Jets coach Rex Ryan recently called Kuechly a "tackling machine" and said "if he's not the best middle linebacker in the league then I'm not sure who is."

Falcons coach Mike Smith agreed with Ryan, adding Kuechly is "having a Pro Bowl season with the numbers to back it up."

McDermott took it a step further, calling Kuechly the best defensive player in the NFL.

"His preparation, his instincts, the willingness to get to the football," McDermott said, shaking his head as if in awe, "He plays with such determination and hunger."

Kuechly has more tackles than any player in the NFL since coming in as the ninth overall pick in last year's draft.

He's third in the league this season, buoyed by an NFL record-tying 24-tackle performance Sunday against New Orleans. Kuechly also intercepted Drew Brees, earning NFC defensive player weekly honors for the second time this season.

"I've never been around an effort like that," McDermott said. "Sometimes you get a guy that's playing really great in the run game and he's a little bit more one-dimensional. But just an outstanding overall effort."

Of course, you'd never know it by talking to Kuechly. When told of the latest honor, Kuechly smiled sheepishly and said, "Oh, cool."

He went on to do what he does on a regular basis, crediting his coordinator and defensive line for putting him in position to make plays.

"There's a bunch of other good players out there on the defensive side of the ball you've watched the whole year, guys that have made plays every week," Kuechly said.

Kuechly said what mattered the most to him was getting the win. Carolina is now in position to wrap up the NFC South and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs with a victory Sunday at Atlanta.

"You can see he's the quarterback of that defense," Smith said. "He can play the run extremely well and is able to match up with tight ends and running backs. ... He's a guy that you have to scheme to get somebody on — and even then he ends up getting free and making the tackle."

Kuechly isn't just the beneficiary of a defense that has allowed the fewest points in the league. He's excelled at this tackling thing for quite some time.

He became the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in tackles twice at Boston College. He led the ACC in tackles three straight seasons and was awarded the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation's top college defensive player as a junior before turning pro.

He led the league in tackles in 2012, earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

The key for Kuechly?

"I learned at a young age that if you run to the ball, more times than not you're going to be around the ball making a tackle," Kuechly said.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who played linebacker for the Chicago Bears alongside Mike Singletary, said Kuechly "has a chance to go down as one of the best of all time."

His teammates see that potential, too.

Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said Kuechly "looks like Superman and plays like Superman."

Added cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: "He's the best defensive player in the league and one day he's going to be the best linebacker to play this game."

As laid back as Kuechly is off the field, teammates said he ratchets up the intensity on game day. He even has a little kick-step celebration he does after making some tackles, although he said he doesn't even know he's doing it.

"I love to see that because that's him being emotional and intense," McDermott said. "I know he's in the groove when he's doing that."

Kuechly almost starts to blush when asked about it.

"My mom's like, 'What did you do that for?'" Kuechly said. "I'm like, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' It just kind of happens."

Edwards sees plenty of celebrating in Kuechly's future. He played with Ray Lewis in Baltimore and said the comparisons between the two linebackers aren't that far off.

"Ray might be the best, but by the time Luke is done he's going to be right up there," Edwards said.