Luke Kuechly nearing superhero status
NEWTON, Mass. -- Wham! Pow! Biff!
What's that sound? Is it the onomatopoeic sound of a scuffle in an episode of the 1960s TV adaptation of the "Batman" comic book series?
No. At least, not exactly.
It's Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, taking down yet another opposing ball carrier.
Yes, the player Eagles coach Frank Spaziani has taken to calling "the Boy Wonder" would do Burt Ward's Robin proud assuming the former Adam West sidekick cares about the kinds of cartoonish numbers Kuechly has piled up in his first two seasons in Chestnut Hill.
In his freshman season, all the former safety out of Cincinnati's St. Xavier High School did was finish second in the nation with 158 tackles. As a follow-up, the bespectacled linebacker beefed up his tackle total to 183, best in the nation, and became BC's first consensus All-American since Jamie Silva in 2007.
Oh, and he was the runner-up for the Butkus Award, which went to a guy named Von Miller, a senior linebacker from Texas A&M who'll be playing his football on Sundays now. He was taken second overall in the 2011 NFL draft.
If Kuechly keeps up his torrid tackling pace, and stays healthy and in school for four seasons, he'll shatter BC's career record for takedowns (524, by Stephen Boyd). In fact, Kuechly enters his junior season needing an exact repeat of his sophomore total (183) to tie the record.
But then again, the Boy Wonder already has records. His 183 tackles are the most in a season in school history. When he cracked the 300-career tackle mark in 2010, he became the first Eagle to do so in just two seasons. And he's currently carrying a 22-game streak of double-digit tackles, the longest active in the country.
He'll be a front-runner for the Butkus, and he's on watch lists for the Nagurski, Bednarik, Lombardi, Camp and Lott awards. He's a big reason the Eagles' defense was the best in the nation at defending against the run last season, allowing opponents a paltry 82.8 yards per game.
The Eagles put him on the cover of the team's media guide alongside stud running back and ACC preseason player of the year Montel Harris.
Yet all Kuechly wanted to talk about with reporters at the ACC media days in Pinehurst, N.C., was the team.
"I don't really have any individual goals, per se; I have team goals," Kuechly said. "I think we want to get to the ACC championship game. That's where we want to be, that's what our goal is."
To get there, the Eagles will almost certainly need another superhuman effort from Kuechly.
Spaziani's team returns 16 starters, seven on defense: Kuechly in the middle and Kevin Pierre-Louis, no slouch himself when it comes to making tackles, on the weak side; safeties Jim Noel and Okechukwu Okoroha and cornerback Donnie Fletcher in the secondary; and Max Holloway and Kaleb Ramsey on the line.
It's about that last group, the defensive linemen, that Spaziani seemed most concerned the week before practice. The Eagles graduated three senior stalwarts there last season: Alex Albright, Damik Scafe and Brad Newman. Albright fractured his right fibula in October, meaning he had to be replaced on the fly. In stepped Holloway, who ended up leading the team with 14 tackles for a loss. That performance suggests the junior may be one solution along the line.
But Spaziani singled out Ramsey, the 6-foot-3, 302-pound colossus, as a player ready to break out on defense.
"Kaleb Ramsey, I believe, has tremendous physical talent and did step up and play last year, and has made tremendous strides," Spaziani said. "I think he's on the precipice of having a fantastic year.
"Now a lot of things need to fall into place, but we need him to play well."
Spaziani said the Eagles may need to rebuild the defensive line on the fly. If things don't fall into place with Holloway, Ramsey and presumptive starters Dillon Quinn and Kasim Edebali -- if the D-linemen aren't eating up enough offensive blockers to allow Kuechly, Pierre-Louis and others to fill the gaps and shoot to the ball -- there may be a shift in Spaziani and defensive coordinator Bill McGovern's scheme.
"We'd like to play football the way we've played, because that's our system," the third-year head coach said. "But once again it goes back to coaching: We're not going to ask guys to do stuff just because that's our system.
"We've got to win, we'll do whatever it takes, so we might have to play a little bit different on defense."
Spaziani talks a lot about a coach's job essentially being to put the right players in the right position to do the right thing at the right time -- on the field and off. Asked about leadership, and whether he's concerned about there being a vacuum without guys such as Wes Davis and Mark Herzlich in the locker room, Spaziani said it's always a concern but that each team is different.
"We try to give them more responsibility. It's about the accountability," Spaziani said. "Ultimately, it's their team."
Judging by his words, Kuechly seems ready to handle that responsibility.
"I'm going to try to be the leader this year of the defense," he told reporters at ACC media day, "but I'm not a real vocal guy. I'm not a rah-rah, kind of in-your-face guy. I'm going to try to do things the right way, I'm going to try to work hard, I'm going to try to lead by example.
"Being a leader you can't do something that you're not."
That's OK, because Harris just wants Kuechly to be Kuechly.
"Luke is a leader by example," Harris said. "You see him out there flying around, high emotion, making plays, it's contagious. Other guys are going to want to do the same thing."
Piling up tackles and racking up rave reviews. Is there anything the Boy Wonder can't do?
"Yeah, oh yeah," Spaziani said. "He's not a perfect football player, no one is. He's certainly, instinctively, one of the best football players I've ever been around. He's just a productive football player. There's nothing more you can say about him, that's what he is. He's a natural football player, and he's getting better all the time."
Besides the invaluable knowledge gained simply by playing as much as he has, Kuechly should benefit from his physical maturation as well. Last season the 6-3 Kuechly packed about 225 pounds on his frame, which when combined with the glasses he wears off the field gave him a distinctively un-linebacker-like look. Another offseason of training, combined with the natural maturation process, and Kuechly's up to 237 pounds and it shows.
"He looks like a linebacker this year," Spaziani said. "Before you looked at him and you went, 'That guy is the big-league linebacker?' Now you look, 'Yup, he is the big-league linebacker.'"
And so the Boy Wonder builds himself into a man of steel, running up numbers that cause coaches to compare him to comic book characters -- which in turn tempts beat writers to strain those metaphors way past the breaking point -- one Whammed! wideout and Biffed! back at a time.
BC's big-league linebacker is back, ready to lead the defense, to turn the page and continue the adventure.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.