SAN JOSE, Calif. — Luke Kuechly knew where he stood from the very beginning.
He once was the nervous new guy trying to blend into the fabric of a veteran linebacker corps, the young kid determined to soak up as much knowledge as he could from his wise counterparts. But now, only four years later, it’s Kuechly who has emerged as the unquestioned leader of the Carolina Panthers’ defense.
“When I got there, I didn’t know what my role was going to be, but I knew my role was going to be one thing, and that was being the rookie,” said the linebacker, a 2012 first-round pick. “If I worked hard, kept my mouth shut and did what I was told, I knew it was going to work out for me.”
And it has.
Kuechly is not flamboyant or boastful. Nor does he possess the same gregarious personality as Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. But underneath his messy mop of curly brown hair exists a fierce competitor who has emerged as a vital cog in the Panthers’ suffocating pressure.
“Cam, he walks into a room and you know that,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Luke kind of has this ability to sneak in.”
Kuechly’s energy and his attention to detail helped make him the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. His relentless pursuit of perfection had an effect on those around him.
“I haven’t been around a lot of people that I can say their preparation, their play, their skill set brings the best out of me,” Newton said this week.
“He put so much pressure on me when he first got here, staying late, watching extra film, making sure that everyone on the defensive side knows what they’re doing. And for me watching, it was a competitive enviousness that I grew, and I was like, ‘Dang, like, he gets it.’ ”
Kuechly’s penchant for pick-6s — including one apiece against the Seahawks and Cardinals in the playoffs — has garnered plenty of attention in recent weeks. But he tries his best to stay out of the limelight.
“The foundation of our defense was already kind of set up with guys like Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson, guys who have been around for some time,” he said. “Those guys set the foundation and I think we just added some good pieces around them.”
Asked if he views himself as the defense’s version of Newton, Kuechly said: “No, I don’t think so. I don’t really look at myself like that. I thought I could come in and do my best and see if I could help out.”
Rivera said he first heard about Kuechly from Jim Morrissey, a former 1985 Bears teammate, before the 2012 draft. Morrissey’s son was Kuechly’s college travel roommate.
“I said, ‘Well, can I talk to your son?’ ” Rivera recalled. “I talked to his son Michael and they described Luke to a T. So when Luke showed up and we met with Luke and we visited with him, he was everything you’d hoped.”