Panthers’ Kuechly ahead of the curve

SPARTANBURG, SC — Luke Kuechly isn’t your typical starry-eyed rookie linebacker, so says Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.

The team’s first-round draft pick – No. 9 overall – this past April, Kuechly has stepped right in and made his presence felt. He isn’t going to have to sit behind a veteran watching and waiting for his turn to eventually arrive. It’s here. Kuechly is already one of the Panthers’ most important players.

“He’s way ahead,” Rivera said at the team’s training camp site at Wofford College, comparing Kuechly to most first-year linebackers. “He’s done such a great job. He’s such a sharp football player, a natural football player. He’s not just learning what we are doing but he can reply on his natural instincts of just getting it and understanding what’s going on.”

On the very first play the first-team defense lined up Saturday evening, Kuechly was the starter at one of the outside spots. An inside linebacker for almost every snap of his college career – one in which he averaged16 tackles per game last fall – Kuechly gave way in the middle to Jon Beason, a former All-Pro who missed 15 games last season with an injury.

But it wasn’t so much that Beason beat him out for the inside spot, it’s that Kuechly is so freakishly talented that he can handle the outside just as well, and that isn’t Beason’s strength. So for the staff to get the most out of both exceptional talents, they simply moved Kuechly out some.

“If you look at the athleticism that we have, and I also think with Luke’s stoutness and his size he really helps us on the strong side of the running game,” said Rivera, who spent nine seasons playing linebacker in the NFL. “I really like what we’ve got going right now.”

Kuechly, who won the Butkus and three other major awards last season, showed off some of that athletic ability early in the first practice of the season. With veteran backup Derek Anderson in at quarterback, Kuechly dropped back in pass coverage, rotated to his left and snared Anderson’s pass that was intended for a receiver more in the middle of the field.

Kuechly immediately turned his nose up field and began running. He looked more like a large, nimble tailback making the play instead of an eye black-wearing beast whose nasty edge helps him fund and get to the ball.

In the second practice, he picked off Cam Newton on a pass over the middle, drawing calls from the crowd, “Keeeek.” They already know how to pronounce his name.

Kuechly’s focus is so great, he may not have even noticed.

“You’ve got to adjust on the fly,” said Kuechly, the ACC’s all-time leading tackler with 532. “You’ve got to learn two different positions. They’re kind of the same in some aspects, and they’re kind of different, too.”

An avid fisherman, Kuechly loves the idea that the Charlotte region has more than its share of ponds, lakes and streams. He likes that he’s playing in an ACC town, and is grateful a team with Carolina’s needs and immediate potential brought him aboard.

But even with the high praise from his coach and spot with the first team, going from college to the NFL is still a considerable transition, even for Kuechly.

“You have to sit down and take it day by day and you have to work on the small things, because that’s what makes you good,” Kuechly said. “The concepts on the defense are probably the biggest thing to help you get that. So when you get the concepts you can start looking at the smaller things to help you pick it up a little quicker.”

Kuechly also spent time at middle linebacker with the second unit in the first few practices and likely will for the remainder of the season. Given Carolina’s injury issues in recent years, last season in particular, Kuechly will learn every nuance at all three linebacker spots.

But most of his emphasis is on learning the outside and developing chemistry with Beason, James Anderson, Jordan Senn and company.