Luke Kuechly’s high school coach had a feeling early on he was watching a future NFL player on the practice field at St. Xavier High School.
But Steve Specht might have been the only one who felt that way back in Cincinnati almost a decade ago.
"That’s something his mom and I always laugh about," Specht told Fox Sports. "I always do recruiting meetings with the kids that want to play at the (college) level, and when I met with Luke’s mom and dad I was going through, ‘Here’s the process: Luke’s gonna be a scholarship kid, it’s just a matter of where.’
"Going through it all she looked at me and said, ‘Seriously, Steve? You really think?’ And I just said, ‘Look he’s gonna have an opportunity. I think he can play on Sundays.’ She looked at me funny and thought that was a joke. I said, ‘No, that’s not a joke. I really think the kid is that good.’"
Considering Kuechly topped out as a three-star recruit, his mother might not have been the only one who did not expect him to be able to play for pay someday, but that’s not altogether surprising, either.
Measuring in at 6-foot-3 and around 210 pounds as an upperclassmen, Kuechly had good speed but was not a burner. He was ultra productive for a good high school team, playing linebacker and then a hybrid safety/linebacker spot, but there are a lot of kids who fit that description in the football-mad state of Ohio and particularly Cincinnati — where high school football’s popularity still dwarfs that of UC’s Bearcats and some would say competes favorably with the Bengals.
After spending 2005 on the freshman team while the varsity won St. Xavier’s first state championship, he missed most of his sophomore season with an injury.
Heading into 2007, Specht said he felt his team had a lot of potential, but there was a need at weak-side linebacker.
Enter Kuechly, who locked that spot down and help the Bombers go 15-0.
They won another state championship, and Specht called that perhaps the best team he has or will ever coach.
"They were loaded, and going into that year we felt like we had one missing piece to the defense that would put us over the top," Specht said. "I mean those guys were so good, but we thought if we had a ‘Will’ linebacker we were going to be tremendous. And Luke filled that bill real fast. We found out about a week into camp this kid was special."
Just a two-star recruit heading into his senior season, Kuechly gained a good amount of interest — including a scholarship offer from Jim Harbaugh at Stanford — but never broke into the list of top 20 prospects in Ohio according to Scout.com.
Neither Ohio State nor Notre Dame — holy grails, so to speak, of offers for Ohio kids who happen to attend one of the state’s several high-profile Catholic school powerhouses — ever came calling.
Specht guessed it probably had something to do with Kuechly’s weight, which didn’t hold him back in the Bomber’s 3-3-5 stack defense but made him hard to project at the next level.
"I think that’s one of the things the colleges were looking at: He didn’t quite have safety speed and they didn’t know if he was big enough to be a ‘backer," Specht said.
"All I kept saying to them was, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but this is one of the best football players I’ve ever had.’ He was different. It was interesting going through his recruiting and how it played itself out. I don’t know if he got his third star when Stanford offered him but the big boys never came in on him."
He ended up choosing Boston College, a Jesuit school like St. X. and one that had a history of recruiting ex-Bombers, over offers that also included Stanford, Duke and Virginia.
At B.C., Kuechly was an immediate success.
After leading the ACC in tackles as a true freshman, Kuechly eared All-America honors as a sophomore and a junior. He won the Butkus Award in 2011 before opting to enter the NFL draft a year early.
NFL success did not take long to achieve, either, as Kuechly went from Defensive Rookie of the Year to Defensive Player of the Year in successive seasons.
Now at just 24 years old he is the defensive face of a franchise on the rise, one ready to play in Super Bowl 50.
Specht, who says he stays in touch with his former player mostly via text, would never predict quite this level of success for any high school freshman, but he did make a prediction heading into the biggest game of Kuechly’s career.
"The thing I’m most impressed with about Luke Kuechly is whether or not he wins a Super Bowl ring, he’s still gonna be Luke," Specht said. "What drives Luke is to be the best person he can be every day. That’s what drives him. And he’s gonna work as hard in the NFL as he will some day when he’s going on with his life’s work. If it’s accounting he’s gonna drive himself to be the best possible accountant he can be. He’s just so focused. I think that’s what I’m most proud of and the community at St. Xavier High School is so proud, the person he is. Because he’s a much better person than he is a football player."