CHARLOTTE — Panthers’ rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has grown accustomed to winning awards and with the way he’s currently playing more could soon be on the way.
Kuechly leads the NFL with 131 tackles and is making a strong push for defensive rookie of the year honors.
Carolina’s first-round draft pick had 16 tackles this past Sunday as the Panthers held the Falcons to 35 yards rushing in a 30-20 victory earning him NFC defensive player of the week honors.
The attention makes the humble 21-year-old a little uncomfortable, prompting him to deflect all of the credit to his defensive teammates.
But coaches and teammates alike see incredible potential in Kuechly.
Coach Ron Rivera said with Cam Newton and Kuechly the Panthers have “their quarterbacks of the future on both sides of the ball. I think that speaks well for this team” moving forward.
The Panthers (4-9) play at San Diego (5-8) on Sunday.
Kuechly’s effort against Atlanta marked the third time this season he’s had at least 15 tackles in a game — no other NFL player has more than one. He has an NFL-best eight games with at least 10 tackles.
He also has three forced fumbles, a sack and an interception.
But tackling is his forte, just as it was at Boston College when he led the nation in that category as a sophomore and junior, culminating in Kuechly winning the Bronko Nagurski Award last year as the nation’s top college defensive player.
The Panthers drafted Kuechly ninth overall even though they already had a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker on the roster in Jon Beason. It’s turned out to be a good move.
When Beason went down with a season-ending injury, Kuechly moved from the starting weak side linebacker to the middle, the same position he played for most of his career at Boston College.
He hasn’t stopped hitting since.
“He’s better suited as a middle linebacker,” Rivera said. “He’s got a skill and he can play outside. He has a natural feel and natural leadership instinct for being in the middle and that’s probably the best spot for him.”
Kuechly can’t explain his knack for tackling.
He said it’s something he’s always been able to do since he began playing football as an 8-year-old growing up in Cincinnati.
“People always ask me that, and I don’t know,” Kuechly said with a modest shrug of the shoulders. “It’s one of those things where you just know you have to get to the ball.”
Kuechly’s early success doesn’t surprise his teammates.
Panthers veteran receiver Steve Smith said the first two things he noticed about Kuechly when he joined the club were his unpretentious attitude and desire to get better.
Kuechly would walk up to Smith during or after practice and ask questions about certain plays or things he saw on the field, eager to learn the ins and outs of the NFL game.
He’d do the same with other veterans, too.
“Here’s what you don’t realize — he hasn’t even cracked the surface of what he can become,” said Smith, who isn’t one to heap praise on other players, particularly rookies.
Smith said Kuechly reminds him of former linebacker Dan Morgan, who was a Pro Bowl player until concussions ended his career.
Kuechly’s play has not gone unnoticed around the league.
Chargers coach Norv Turner said Kuechly jumped out at him on tape while preparing for Sunday’s game against Carolina.Turner said Kuechly doesn’t appear to have a weakness in his game.
“He’s instinctive. He’s outstanding in the run defense. He’s outstanding in the pass defense,” Turner said. “He’s an outstanding football player who you can see is going to be one of the leaders of that group for a long time.”
Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said Kuechly has “a ton of energy” and a “high football IQ.”
“He has exceptional instincts the way he reacts, and he reminds me of a veteran watching him on film,” Gates said.
Rivera said Kuechly’s natural instincts are so good the coaching staff has had to be careful not to over-coach him. Basically, if it’s not broken don’t fix it.
“If there’s a better defensive rookie in the league, I haven’t seen it,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “Week in and week out, he’s number one or two on the tackle list for us, and he’s lining the defense up. The things he does for a rookie are very impressive. He’s got a bright, bright future.”