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Panthers' top draft pick Luke Kuechly making impact

By Ron Green Jr. Published: August 6, 2012

At a program that has produced Doug Flutie, Matt Ryan and Mathis Kiwanuka, Kuechly is the only true junior ever elected team captain.

He would sit with his parents at pre-game mass then turn into a destroyer on the football field. He had 10 or more tackles in 33 consecutive games, an NCAA record. He's the only player to lead the nation in tackles more than once, won the Bronko Nagurski award as the nation's top defensive player in 2011 and earned just about every honor a college football player can.

Kuechly made his decision to bypass his senior season after careful deliberation.

After deciding to enter the NFL draft, Kuechly called his Boston College coaches. Not just defensive coordinator Bill McGovern and head coach Frank Spaziani. Kuechly called all nine coaches and Gallup, telling them of his decision and thanking them for all they had done for him.

In his three seasons at Boston College, Kuechly's parents missed just one of his games.

Kuechly's 14-year old brother, Henry, will be a freshman in high school this year. If he makes the basketball team, Kuechly has told his parents to stay home and watch Henry's games.

“I told them it's Henry's turn,” Kuechly says.

Fitting in quickly

Kuechly won't celebrate his 21st birthday until Aug. 20 but he's being asked to play beyond his years for the Panthers.

He's expected to start at weak-side linebacker, flanking middle linebacker Jon Beason with James Anderson on the strong side. In training camp, Kuechly has quickly established himself as an impact player, bolstering a position where Thomas Davis is attempting to come back from a third ACL injury.

Kuechly plays on instinct as much as physical skill. He reads plays quickly, filling holes, sniffing out misdirection. He can cover receivers downfield or stop the run at the line.

“He's a very bright football player,” head coach Ron Rivera says. “He understands the game. He's everything we thought he would be.”

When the Panthers drafted Kuechly, they did it to add concrete to what had become a fragile linebacker group. Beason was coming off a torn Achilles while linebacker Thomas Davis was recovering from a third ACL surgery on the same knee.

Beason's personality can be as forceful off the field as on it. If the Panthers defense belongs to a single player, it belongs to Beason, one of the best at his craft.

“Right out of the gate, he's adjusted great,” Beason says. “I've never seen a rookie linebacker come in and pick it up as fast as he has. He's a pro about it. He stays late. He studies. He asks a lot of questions. Very athletic. Has great ball skills. Just prototype. He'll help our defense tremendously.

”I like him, too. He's a good kid.“

Cam Newton had a sense of what the Panthers were getting when they drafted Kuechly, having seen him up close at the IMG academy. In training camp, Newton says Kuechly's play recognition has forced the quarterback to throw passes into the ground because the rookie has destroyed the play.

”Luke is a wonderful person. Secondly, he's an unbelievable football player,“ Newton says.

”Looking at him, you don't think he has that fierce attitude on the field but looks may be deceiving.“

Beason says he and Kuechly have had several long conversations, not just about football, but about other things.

”Some guys could be real shut off to you. Jon and all the guys have been very helpful and willing to help me out,“ Kuechly says. For me, it's just go in and listen and do what I'm told at this point. I'm the young guy. You've got to earn the respect.

The veterans still make the rookie carry their shoulder pads as is NFL tradition - Kuechly could be seen trudging up the hill from practice Thursday night, carrying Beason and Anderson's equipment in the muggy heat - but they've brought him into their circle.

”He is a rookie but we've opened the door and said you're one of us,“ Beason says. ”We don't treat him like a rookie and we don't expect him to play like that, either.“

Adjusting to Charlotte

Kuechly is still settling into his new life.

He recently signed a one-year lease on a one-bedroom apartment not far from the stadium. His proudest purchase is a couch.

”It's a two-piece sectional. When they were bringing it in, one section ripped,“ Kuechly says. ”In my room now, there's a one-section couch with little metal bearings on it you connect the other part to. They're supposed to fix it.“

Kuechly didn't spend a chunk of his signing bonus on an expensive new car. In fact, he tried to talk his dad into giving him the family's pick-up truck with 125,000 miles on it.

”I said you can't have my truck. You need to get something reliable,“ Tom Kuechly says. ”You miss one plane to a game because that truck broke down you've paid for a new vehicle.

“He doesn't like to spend money.”

Kuechly drives a two-year old GMC Yukon.

“A simple car, that's all I need,” Kuechly says.

He's learning his way around his new home, which is similar in size to Cincinnati. Kuechly is proud to have figured out that Morehead Street turns into Providence Road without changing directions.

What Charlotte doesn't have is Skyline Chili, a Cincinnati treasure and one of the major food groups in Kuechly's life.

After helping him get into his new apartment, Kuechly's mother, Eileen, was in a Cincinnati home furnishings store when she saw a framed print of a Skyline Chili sign. It now hangs in Kuechly's apartment.

His loyalty extends to chili.

Kuechly sounds too good to be true.

“I finally asked his mother if there was anything wrong with him,” Gallup says. “She said he doesn't know how to make up his bed.”

His father, who has indulged Luke's passion for fishing with trips to Alaska, Canada, Idaho and other places, offers one hidden flaw.

In a friendly competition to see who could catch the biggest trout, father and son had similar catches. When it came time to weigh and clean the fish to determine the winner, Luke told his father to take his fish into the building to weigh his first.

While his father did that, Luke filled his fish with water to make it heavier.

“He cheats at fishing,” his father says.


)2012 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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