Luke Kuechly is a little more than two weeks from heading to his first NFL training camp.
Like he did at Cincinnati St. Xavier High School and at Boston College, Kuechly will find a specific position when he gets there.
Maybe it will be inside linebacker. Maybe it will be outside linebacker. Maybe it will just be “tackler.”
The Carolina Panthers used the 9th overall pick of the NFL Draft on Kuechly last April in hopes that his nose for the ball will provide immediate help to a defense that gave up too many big plays last season. Kuechly’s versatility gives the Panthers options as inside linebacker Jon Beason returns from ACL surgery.
“They kind of just bumped me around from position to position(in the spring),” Kuechly said last month at the NFL Rookie Symposium. “I’m open to whatever is best for the team. They’ll probably bump me quite a few places then once camp (gets going) make a decision, see where I fit best and where I am most comfortable.”
A safety in high school, Kuechly was a 220-pound true freshman outside (mostly) linebacker at Boston College — and a pretty good one, finishing the season with 158 tackles. Though tackles are an unofficial stat, he led the nation in tackles as a sophomore and a junior (playing mostly inside) and left after three years as the leading tackler in both Boston College and Atlantic Coast Conference history with 532.
He finds the ball. Presumably, a player the Panthers list at 6’3, 243 will find a position in Carolina quickly.
When Kuechly was with the Panthers in May and June for minicamp and OTAs, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the plan was to start Kuechly on the outside but also rotate him inside as Beason became more comfortable — and more available.
Once the pads come on later this month, Rivera and his staff will have a better read on the situation. That’s also when Kuechly will feel more at home.
“It’s back to football — finally,” Kuechly said. “Everything with the draft process, from the combine to visits to pro days, that’s great but it’s not football. Getting back to football is a breath of fresh air.
“All that other stuff just brings a lot of uncertainty. You get to pick your high school and pick your college and now, here, you get picked. The uncertainty was kind of difficult, but it was a process and it was good. And it’s good to be settled in Carolina now and get the pads on. I’m ready to get to Spartanburg (for training camp) and get back to playing football.”
Despite Boston College’s struggles last fall, Kuechly won the Butkus Award, the Rotary Lombardi Award, the Lott Impact Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. The Panthers think his instincts and work ethic will help him make a smooth transition to the NFL game, regardless of where he’s listed in the lineup.
“With my position, it might be of one of those things where we just have to get in camp and see what happens,” Kuechly said. “I think it’s one of those things where I have to have an open mindset, have to be willing.
“All of the linebacker spots are pretty similar, they just have different intricacies. I’ll be studying.”
Kuechly said his first impression of the NFL game is that it’s “just faster” than the college game and that “everybody knows what they’re doing. You can’t just be fast. You have to be smart, too.”
In Spartanburg later this month, Kuechly could find that the fastest player on the field might also be the biggest — and be the quarterback. He said he looks forward to keeping up with Cam Newton and the rest of the Panthers and testing himself against some of the NFL’s top athletes.
“Cam is incredible,” Kuechly said. “Playing against guys like him and a great center like Ryan Kalil — I noticed him right away — is something that can only make me better. I have a lot to learn. I’m anxious to get going.”