FOXBORO – The last time football fans in New England saw Luke Kuechly, he was busy cementing his reputation as the best college linebacker in the country. By the end of his junior year at Boston College, Kuechly had been named an All-American three times, led the nation in tackling twice, and was presented the Dick Butkus Award by the man himself as the top linebacker in college football.
On Monday night, many New England fans may be watching Kuechly play for the first time since his junior year with the Eagles in 2011. What they’ll see is a guy busy cementing his reputation as one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year last season after leading the league in tackles, and as Carolina’s middle linebacker, he’s the quarterback of one of the stingiest defenses in football.
“He’s a very instinctive player,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He runs well and he’s got good speed. You definitely see him covering a lot of ground in the passing game, on the outside runs, he makes plays on the sideline. Smart guy, he has some plays where he just kind of can sort things out, find the ball, screen passes, counter plays, misdirection plays, he has good vision and he sees plays well.”
In many ways, Kuechly is the same kind of player he was at the Heights. Whether he’s in the deep middle of the field in pass coverage for Carolina’s “Tampa 2” defense, or whether he’s reading the mess of bodies at the line of scrimmage to discern rushing lanes, he’s always around the ball.
Those instincts have been developed from the time he began watching football as a kid in his hometown of Cincinnati and picking up on some of the tendencies of his favorite players – middle linebackers, of course – Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis. Then at St. Xavier High School in Ohio and through his days at Boston College and learned how to prepare, watch film, and practice efficiently. By the time he took to the pro game, all he needed was time in OTAs, rookie minicamp, training camp and a preseason to get up to speed.
He’s still a work in progress, he insists. Though an instinctive player, Kuechly knows he can’t roll out of bed on game days and have a grasp of what the opposing offense will do without putting in the work.
“I think one thing I try to do is I try to get well prepared for the game, whether it’s the coaches’ game plan or watching film,” Kuechly said. “I think if you can take advantage of that and have an idea of what a team is going to do, the mental side and I guess the instincts kind of kick in and pair together, and you can be pretty successful doing that. So I think I do a good job of trying my best to prepare for games, and then just the aspect of just playing football, going out there and the phrase ‘Play ball’ just kind of takes over.”
Kuechly took five classes at BC during the spring and needs just three more next semester to finish off his marketing degree. But before he trains his focus on the books, he’s looking toward his next on-the-field brain buster: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots offense.
Though the Panthers have won five straight on the back of their defense, Kuechly knows he’ll have his work cut out for him.
On Brady he said: “He’s going to make audibles to the line, get themselves in the route concepts that are effective against the defense we’re in. So we need to do a good job of just playing our defense, playing assignment football, and just concentrating on what we need to get done.”
On Gronkowski: “He’s one of those tight ends that is a playmaker. He’s big, he’s strong, he makes – can catch the catches, and this is why you love playing football, playing against good players in big games. I’ll be excited. I’m not quite sure how the matchup is going to work yet, but I’m sure at some point I’ll be in the same vicinity.”
Kuechly explained in a conference call with media members on Thursday just how excited he is to play on Monday Night Football for the first time. Given the career he had in college and the connection he still has to the area, there will be plenty of people in New England excited to watch him.