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Editor’s Note: Chargers.com will take a look at one player from each position group with an interesting or compelling story as the NFL Draft approaches. We’ve already profiled Brian Stahovich, DeQuan Menzie, Coby Fleener, Melvin Ingram and Matt Kalil.
SAN DIEGO – One year after turning out Mark Herzlich, another linebacker is representing Boston College in the NFL Draft with an unusual last name and a compelling story.
Herzlich was a lower-key version of Tim Tebow, the human interest story. Herzlich overcame bone cancer that helped push him from one of the nation’s best to undrafted, then scratched his way into the starting lineup with the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Luke Kuechly (pronounced “KEEK-ly”) is interesting in the way that a BMW assembly line fascinates an automotive geek. In common language, he played like a machine for the Eagles.
The evidence: Kuechly’s 532 career tackles are a tick less than the NCAA record (since tackles became a tracked stat in 2000) – and he played just three years.
The 6-foot-3, 242-pound linebacker made 191 stops in 2011 in 12 games. A calculator will tell you that’s 15.9 tackles per game. Kuechly made 18 tackles against N.C. State, 20 against Florida State, 19 against Virginia Tech, 23 against Duke and 18 against Northwestern as a junior.
With “just” nine tackles and an interception he returned for a touchdown in the season finale against Miami, Kuechly’s streak of 33 consecutive double-digit tackle games ended. He led the nation with 183 stops as a sophomore and posted 158 tackles as a true freshman starting in place of Herzlich.
“Instinctual” is a word Kuechly hears often from people describing his game.
“I do a pretty good job of preparing myself and that’s something I take pride in is being prepared and knowing what each individual guy on defense is responsible for,” Kuechly said. “I think I can point at different guys and let them know what they’re doing if they have questions. I take pride in the ability to do that.”
People want to know how machines work. That could explain the theory that as impressive as Kuechly’s numbers were, they overstate his value because he made a lot of tackles chasing down ball-carriers well past the line of scrimmage. To that, he can point to 12 tackles for loss as a junior.
Others speculated his athleticism may be less than elite. Then he ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the Combine, third-fastest of any linebacker. His vertical leap, broad jump, three-cone drill and shuttle times were top five among linebackers at the Combine.
Then there’s his trophy case: two-time consensus All-American. ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Winner of the Butkus Award, the Lombardi Award, the Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Kuechly is no sure thing in the NFL. No prospect is.
It’s nothing new to Kuechly. As an all-state safety, many thought he was too slow to play defensive back in college and too small to play linebacker. Now he’s again facing size questions in the NFL, with one report his weight dipped to 234 pounds during last season.
“What was my weight? That was a big thing coming in (to the Combine). I had to prove that I was a sufficient size,” Kuechly said. “The biggest thing is to be able to move at the weight that you have. Right now I’m comfortable where I am.”
A 4-3 middle linebacker in college, Kuechly himself believes it would take time for him to get comfortable in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL, and may fit better in certain defenses than others.
Another question: how has he handled the attention?
Go back to his freshman season, when he returned to the locker room late after a 24-13 loss to USC in the Emerald Bowl. He apologized to defensive coordinator Billy McGovern.
“They made me stay out there, Coach,” Kuechly said.
He didn’t disclose the reason why, trying to hide the Defensive MVP trophy. It didn’t work.
Kuechly is confident, but understands what his place will be as a rookie with the same humble deference.
“You’ve got to be right at what you’re doing. You’ve got to get in the playbook. You’ve got to study,” Kuechly said. “That’s your job now, so you’ve got to take time that you probably otherwise wouldn’t previously to get in that playbook. If you can be confident in what you’re doing, you earn guys’ respect quicker that way.” Read