CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He didn’t know anyone in the Carolina Panthers locker room, and as a rookie, the last thing Luke Kuechly wanted to do was stick out.
He was 21 years old, fresh off campus at Boston College, but walking into that locker room for the first time felt like the first day of school all over again.
Only this time, the linebacker was doing his best to hide his imaginary, “Hello, I’m the No. 9 overall pick” sticker.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Kuechly said. “You don’t know what to expect. It’s a whole different group of guys. I was a young guy coming out and I didn’t know what to expect.”
All-Pros such as linebacker Jon Beason and wideout Steve Smith were roaming around the locker room, and if they were going to notice him, he figured, it wasn’t going to be for the wrong reasons.
He had to figure out a way to blend in and stand out at the same time.
“I just knew that I didn’t know anyone here, really,” Kuechly said. “I came out and I was like, ‘Look, I’m going to keep my mouth shut; that way nobody can say anything.’ If I just play hard, they can’t really make fun of me for anything.
‘Some young guys you have to manage just based on the immaturity level, but when Luke came in, man, he came in extremely focused.’
“They can’t get on me, they can’t badger me, no one’s going to hate me hopefully if I just work hard, play hard, and keep my mouth shut. That was the mind-set.”
Five weeks into his rookie season in 2012, Kuechly found himself at the center of the Panthers defense, calling out signals, handing out assignments, and pulling the strings.
He’s been on the field almost every snap since, playing 1,298 of a possible 1,320 snaps.
With 103 tackles last season, to go with two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and a sack, he ran away with the Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
But in the process of putting together a monster first season, he also earned something bigger.
He became the young maestro in the middle of one of the NFL’s best defenses (it was second-best in points allowed entering Sunday’s games), and part of the reason it works is because he went out of his way to earn his teammates’ respect. It’s why defensive end Greg Hardy has no problem calling himself Kuechly’s personal hit man on the field.
“He just points and I go get ’em, man,” Hardy said. “Lieutenant, that’s what he is to me.”
It’s why nine-year veteran linebacker and unofficial locker room leader Thomas Davis has no problem calling Kuechly the heart of the Panthers defense.
“On every defense, you look at your middle linebacker as the key,” Davis said. “He’s the guy that makes the calls and gets everybody lined up. So absolutely, he’s definitely the heart of this defense right now.”
When Kuechly was looking for mentors, Davis, Beason, and Jordan Senn were all there to take him under their wings.
Davis, who has spent his entire NFL career with the Panthers, could tell quickly that Kuechly was different.
“Some young guys you have to manage just based on the immaturity level, but when Luke came in, man, he came in extremely focused,” Davis said. “When he moved to middle linebacker, he took on the leadership role and he did a great job.
“He wasn’t a guy that you had to look over his shoulder and question where he was going to be or what he was going to do, because you knew day in and day out when he went out to practice and the work that he put in, he was ready and he was going to be prepared. He was one of those guys that you didn’t really have to worry about.”
Senn, who entered the league with the Colts as an undrafted free agent and went through the frustration of being waived and re-signed and waived again before finally catching on with the Panthers in 2009, appreciated Kuechly’s humility when they talked.
“Me being a backup, and I’ve been a backup for years, he didn’t think he was above listening to me,” Senn said. “He was still willing to just listen to the things I had to say.
“He didn’t have an attitude about being the first pick for us. You see some guys that kind of feel like they’ve already earned everything when really they haven’t earned anything. So he came in with the perfect attitude you would want for a rookie and it just shows in his play.”
It wasn’t just deference. Senn would give Kuechly a nugget of information in a team meeting and watch him execute it the same day in practice.
“He’s real smart,” Senn said. “He picks things up real fast. He’s that kind of player. He can take what he hears in the meeting rooms and go out that next day and execute it into his game plan.”
It’s not that Kuechly, like any other NFL linebacker, doesn’t have an ego. He just checks it, Hardy said.
“Greatest guy in the world, man,” he said. “He’s got one. He’s a big enough man to put it away and put his job first, put his team first.”
That mentality’s been team-wide for the Panthers, who climbed out of a 1-3 hole at the start of the season and are riding a five-game win streak as they prepare to host the Patriots in their first “Monday Night Football” game at home since 2008.
“Guys don’t take credit for anything,” Kuechly said. “That’s important about our team. It’s not a ‘me’, it’s not an ‘I’, it’s a ‘we’ thing, and I think it’s helped us get out of the hole at the beginning of the season. It wasn’t one guy’s fault, it’s, ‘All right, we’ve got to do better as a whole.’ And that’s kind of what’s helped us get this run going here.”
The Patriots’ passing game might not be as potent as it’s been in the recent past, tumbling to 20th in the league this season after being in the Top 5 the previous two years. But even if the numbers say one thing, Keuechly’s seen enough star quarterbacks in his career to know that Tom Brady is of the species that can embarrass even the best defenses.
The Panthers have seen their share of name-brand quarterbacks this season. Brady might be the NFL’s ultimate designer label under center, but Kuechly will treat him the same as all the others.
“I look at it just as a team that’s got a good quarterback that’s going to be a challenge for us,” Kuechly said. “Once you get in the game — we played Drew Brees, we played Peyton [Manning] last year, we played Eli [Manning], we’ve played some big-name quarterbacks — but once the game rolls around, I don’t even think about it.”
Instead of letting the matchup overwhelm him, he’ll distill everything into a simple checklist.
“What is my job on this play?”
“What is my assignment?”
“What is their top route this formation?”
“What are their top runs?”
“You kind of go from there,” Kuechly said. “But you do know that he’s a dangerous guy, he’s been around, he’s a guy that’s won Super Bowls, he’s made big plays in big games. So we’ve just got to do our job is what it comes down to.”
With 25 NFL starts now under his belt, he’s not so nervous in the locker room.
“He’s a little more comfortable in front of everybody and a little more of a leader,” Senn said. “He’s doing it the right way.
“He’s progressing into it. Not just all of a sudden going from one year to the next and being a completely different person.
“Luke Kuechly’s still the same guy. He’s just kind of being a little more vocal. Within the next couple of years, I’m sure he’ll definitely be that main figure and leader that everyone wants him to be.”