Commentary

Luke Kuechly tackles every challenge

Linebacker has shown instincts, production and desire to succeed in NFL

Originally Published: April 12, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

On a recent Monday afternoon -- while spending some much-needed down time in Chicago with his family -- former Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly couldn't resist the chance to have a little fun. The day had started with some sightseeing in an attempt to enjoy the city prior to attending a Chicago Bulls game the following night. Before long, the Kuechlys found themselves in The Brain Store while strolling downtown. That's when Henry Kuechly started playing with a puzzle and Luke's competitive juices started burning.

What started as an opportunity for the family to decipher the game together quickly turned into a chance for Luke to win at all costs -- again. When he wasn't trying to outdo his parents, he was teasing little brother Henry about not keeping up. It didn't matter to Luke that Henry was just an eighth grader on spring break. (Luke's older brother, John, didn't make the trip.) As his parents knew all too well, losing wasn't an option when Luke had his game face on.

"I'm a firm believer that you're born with what you have, and Luke has always been very competitive," said Tom Kuechly, Luke's father. "Even if it's just trying to find a place in line at McDonald's, he always needs to be first."

Luke Kuechly (pronounced "Keek-ly") has been known for such fire since the day he became a freshman starter at Boston College, and it's even more attractive to NFL scouts as this year's draft approaches. Not only do they see a kid with a nonstop motor and the ability to tackle just about anything in his sights, but they realize Kuechly has all the necessary intangibles that teams desire in top draft prospects. From a sterling work ethic to a constant desire to improve his game, Kuechly has set himself apart from every other linebacker in this class. As defensive players go this year, he's as close to a sure thing as you'll find.

At this stage, the only thing Kuechly has struggled with is waiting for the chance to know where he'll be playing football this fall.

"It's been a process," said Kuechly, who turns 21 on April 20. "It's one of those deals where a lot of what you do is hurry up and wait. You go from training in Florida to working out at the combine, and then you have the pro day. I feel like I've done well. Now I have to just wait."

"This guy is as good a playmaker as I've seen," one AFC personnel director said. "He has a nose for the football, great instincts, and he's very productive. You can't block the guy because he recognizes plays so quickly and he's very quick to the ball. He'll get you 15 hits a game just because he's so good at beating people to the block points. He's like having a free runner on defense."

That ability to get to the ball consistently is what separates Kuechly from every other player in this draft. He led the nation in tackles in each of the past two seasons (including 191 stops in 2011). He finished his Boston College career as the leading tackler in both school and Atlantic Coast Conference history (with 532 tackles). It's hard to imagine what kind of records Kuechly would have set if he hadn't left school after his junior season, but he certainly didn't lack for hardware. This past season, the two-time All-American won the Butkus Award, the Rotary Lombardi Award, the Lott Impact Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

Kuechly has been just as impressive in the months leading up to the draft. He heard all the questions about having a slight 6-foot-3 frame, so he added five pounds and weighed 242 at the combine. While there, he proved the extra muscle wouldn't slow him down, as he was timed at 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash and produced some of the top testing scores among the linebackers. Still, Kuechly knows he'll stand out more when evaluators look at his film. Although he idolizes Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis, many people compare him favorably to former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowler Zach Thomas.

Said Kuechly: "'Instinctive player' is something that pops up for a lot of people [who talk about him]. That, coupled with I think I'm a smart player. I do a pretty good job preparing myself. That's something I take pride in. I can point at different guys and let them know what they're doing if they have questions. And doing that, and knowing what everyone is doing, you can play faster." "Luke is a great athlete," Boston College defensive coordinator Bill McGovern said. "I know that NFL scouts have to spend a lot of money to find out what's wrong with the guys they draft, but when it comes to Luke, they're wasting their money. He's one of those guys who can't wait for the next challenge."

Luke KuechlyEvan Habeeb/US PresswireLinebacker Luke Kuechly led the nation in tackles in each of the past two seasons.

An ultra-competitive spirit

Kuechly's restlessness hasn't been lost on anybody around him. He recently told his father that he's having a hard time relaxing these days because he misses spring football practice. Kuechly had grown so accustomed to those sessions -- as well as the time he spent playing lacrosse this time of year while attending St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati -- that he couldn't stand the idea of just hanging out. He even spent some of his spare time sending text messages to McGovern while he coached spring football. When McGovern sent him a message saying, "Happy Easter," Kuechly responded by saying, "I can't wait to get going!"

That ultra-competitive spirit has driven Kuechly since childhood. When he was a boy, he once went on a fishing trip with Tom, an excursion that ended with both father and son landing a trout. First Luke wanted to measure the fish to see who had the bigger catch. Then he wanted to weigh them, with his father going first. After Luke walked away with the bigger fish, a local shop owner revealed to Tom that the son had been cheating the scale by running water over it as his trout was weighed.

Luke was just as driven to win when he started playing football in the fourth grade. One day Tom stood on the sideline and watched Luke sidle up to his coach for a conversation. After a few moments, the coach pointed off in the distance and Luke sprinted away for a lap around a phone pole. Upon his return, Luke again engaged the coach in a conversation, which only led to another lap around the phone pole.

After Luke returned for his third attempt at a talk with the coach, the man threw up his arms in exasperation and sent the boy into the game. When Tom asked the coach afterward why he had made Luke run twice, the coach said, "He wouldn't leave me alone." Tom grinned at that. "I'm glad I'm not the only one," he told the coach before walking off with his boy.

Luke Kuechly eventually blossomed into an all-state safety at St. Xavier, and chose Boston College because of its academics and small campus. The knock on Kuechly at the time was that he was a tweener -- too slow to play safety in college and too small to be an immediate starter at linebacker -- but he still impressed people as a football player. After running into Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) coach Greg Toal during Kuechly's senior season -- St. Xavier had played the high school power earlier that year -- McGovern asked Toal's opinion. "He's one of the best players we've seen," Toal said. "The kid doesn't miss tackles."

The Eagles' coaches had hoped to redshirt Kuechly as a freshman but health problems quickly changed those plans. With starting linebackers Mark Herzlich (cancer) and middle linebacker Mike McLaughlin (torn Achilles) sidelined, Kuechly won the middle linebacker job despite weighing around 220 pounds.

"You saw that he had instincts," Eagles coach Frank Spaziani said. "For a lot of freshmen, the game is a blur. He had the vision from the start. He was making plays right away. We asked ourselves, 'Are we not going to play him because he doesn't look the part?' We're not the smartest guys but we could see that he needed to be on the field."

"I try not to get too hyped, and that's what I tried to do then," said Kuechly, who received plenty of guidance from veteran defenders such as Herzlich and Wes Davis. "I remember being in my first game and telling myself all the time, 'It's just football. It's just football.'"

Luke KuechlyRichard Mackson/US PresswireKuechly became a starter as a freshman and never looked back.

Ready for any challenge

Kuechly eventually moved to weakside linebacker when McLaughlin returned later that season, but his productivity never waned. When the Eagles met Maryland and faced a key fourth down at their goal line, Kuechly didn't flinch when the Terrapins hustled to the line of scrimmage for a quick play. Sniffing out a sneak, he leapt over the line after the snap and tackled the quarterback for a 1-yard loss. What made the play all the more impressive was that McGovern hadn't even called a blitz in that situation.

Kuechly finished second in the nation with 158 tackles in that first season, then followed with a school-record 183 tackles as a sophomore. The more he played, the more his skills impressed his teammates.

"His speed is what really stood out when we played together," said Herzlich, who now plays for the New York Giants. "There would be times when I would wonder if we would get to a play, and he'd come out of nowhere to make it." When Kuechly sat down with McGovern following that second year, the coach asked his star linebacker what he wanted to do to improve as a junior. Kuechly's response: "I want to know the defense as well as you do." Kuechly also became notorious in college for not doing anything that would hinder his game. Whether that meant avoiding soda or fried foods, his entire attitude boiled down to one central belief: If it didn't make him better, it wasn't worth doing.

That focus was essential to Kuechly's tuning out all the questions about how long he'd remain at Boston College. He entered his junior season with plenty of people telling him that he'd "have a tough decision" to make after that year. He dealt with that by earning consensus first-team All-America honors for the second straight season. When the year ended, Kuechly met with his coaches and family to talk about his options.

"I wanted to win more games and I wanted to win a bowl game before I left," Kuechly said. "I also wanted to finish what I started because a lot of my friends were still there. But the biggest thing for me was the opportunity I had. It was just time for me to come out."

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireIf desire is any factor, expect Kuechly's success to carry over into the NFL.

When people talk about Kuechly's future in the NFL, they say his likelihood for success doesn't come down to just his natural talent. They believe it has more to do with his desire and demeanor. Just as he didn't wilt when pressed into immediate duty as a freshman at Boston College, he'll be prepared to handle stepping into an NFL huddle and helping a team win. He's never shied away from a challenge because he's always believed he'll do whatever it takes to be ready for one.

That approach happens to be what makes his father proudest of his son's career so far. Tom Kuechly grew up working for his father, who always reminded his son of the importance of not resting on your laurels. "Whenever I'd tell my dad we had a good month, he'd always say, 'What are we going to do next month?'" Tom said. "That's [the attitude] I hoped to see in Luke. I used to always tell him that you've set the bar for yourself. Now you have to meet it or beat it. And he'd always tell me, 'I know, Dad.' He's managed to stay even keel throughout all this, and that has a lot to do with the people he's had around him."

Luke Kuechly is so grounded that he won't even be traveling to New York for the draft. When his parents asked what he wanted, he said a quiet day at home with them, his two brothers and a few loved ones. He has never needed the pomp and circumstance, and he certainly doesn't want to be the last person sitting in an empty green room in New York City. Not that it will take long for Kuechly to hear his name.

Even though he says he hasn't paid much attention to recent mock drafts, some analysts have him going as high as No. 11 to Kansas City.

"All the mock draft stuff is just what people are saying," Kuechly said. "I've done everything I can at this point, from the combine to my pro day. Now it's all about waiting for the day to roll around -- and seeing what happens."

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.