Panthers’ All-Pro LB Kuechly focused on improvement, not popularity

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly won the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year Award last season.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It seems pretty safe to say that if Luke Kuechly played his football in New York that he’d be a darling of all the advertising agencies on Madison Avenue. After all, what’s not to like?

In two short years in the NFL, Kuechly captured the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, the youngest player to ever win it, as well take home Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He’s considered by most as the best linebacker in football. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that he has the good looks to match.

But since he’s playing with the Carolina Panthers, the advertising executives haven’t come in hoards asking for his endorsements, though there have been a few.

"There are some things that have popped up," Kuechly said. "It was a fun offseason and I was able to go and do a couple of things, but the guys I’m working with are doing a great job. But once football season’s here, football season’s here and that’s what I’m excited for. That stuff was in the offseason and I had some good opportunities, but now its football and I get to do that now."

That last remark perfectly sums of Kuechly — he’s all business when it comes to the Panthers and doing his job right.

Coming into the NFL out of Boston College as a first-round draft pick, Kuechly already had a reputation as an outstanding college linebacker after being voted a two-time consensus All-American. However, many wondered if he would be able to carry it over to the pros.

And who could blame the naysayers? It’s not like people could expect him to match what he did at Boston College, which was set the school and ACC career tackle records with 532, win the Butkus Award, Lombardi Award, the Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Bronko Nagusrki Trophy, which was nearly every award that he was eligible to win as a defensive player.

In his junior and final season with the Eagles, Kuechly led the nation with 191 tackles, 102 of which were solo, which averages out to roughly 16 tackles per game. But there was one game in particular during his sophomore season that grabbed everybody’s attention. Against Duke in 2010, Kuechly had 21 tackles, recovered a fumble, forced a fumble and broke up two passes.

To date, he’s matched his college production — and then some.

His rookie season, Kuechly led the NFL in tackles before going on to be named the best defensive player in football in his second season. Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who played for the New York Giants, is the only other player in NFL history to win both awards in successive seasons.

Even so, Kuechly says there’s much for him to improve on.

"I think I need to do a better job with my hands in the run game," he said. "In the pass game, I think coverage is always something you can develop, and blitzing, that’s another thing too, that when you’re number’s called you have to go make a move, when it’s one-on-one you have to make that happen.

"That’s what’s good about camp. The pads are on so you can move a little quicker and you don’t have to worry about staying out of peoples’ faces and stuff like that."

Even though Cam Newton received a lot of attention after breaking many rookie passing records, it’s Kuechly that’s considered the best player on the team. He says he has no problem being the face of the franchise.

"I think as long as you do your job and you’re accountable and you’re in the right spot, it’s easy to do," Kuechly said. "If I can just keep being myself and keep taking direction, I’ll be just fine. I don’t think there’s necessarily a face thing, I think if I just keep doing my job that’s really all I’m concerned about."

Many players that have half or a quarter of the accolades that Kuechly has in his possession often try to let everybody around them just how great they are. Not Kuechly. He doesn’t even tell himself how good he is.

"You know one thing I like about football is that it’s a team game and the guys up front make linebacker’s jobs easier," he said. "Those guys are great guys inside, who do a great job for us and I think it’s like we’re running backs and they’re like the offensive line if you look at it from an offensive perspective. If those guys aren’t doing their job you can’t run the ball and if the guys up front (defensively) aren’t doing their job it makes ours more difficult.

"That’s one thing about football, a team game where nobody can do it by themselves."

Never taking credit for success, always thinking he can get better improve and staying out of trouble or the headlines off the field is what makes Kuechly refreshingly different. That is who he is at his core.

And it’s not likely to change anytime soon, if ever.

"I came in with an open mindset to listen and work hard and see where it put me in," Kuechly said. "That’s still my mindset, to learn as much as I can and work as hard as I can and listen to the coaches because it’s their jobs to put us in position to make plays. For me, there’s still things I can improve on and I’m excited to keep working in that direction."