Life hasn’t changed much for Luke Kuechly since the Carolina Panthers’ middle linebacker was named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in February.
He spent most of the winter living at his parents’ home in Cincinnati, working out and taking online classes toward his degree at Boston College. Kuechly returned to Charlotte this week for the start of conditioning workouts.
As for the crystal trophy Kuechly won the night before the Super Bowl at New York’s Radio City Music Hall? It’s stashed somewhere at his folks’ place in Cincinnati.
“The trophy’s at home. It’s probably in a box right now,” Kuechly said this week. “I’ve been moving around so much I haven’t really had a chance to set anything up. It’s back home in the box.”
The league’s best defensive player last season and face of the Panthers’ defense had a mostly mundane offseason.
“Same old thing – go home, do my schoolwork, hang out with my friends,” Kuechly said. “Nothing too crazy right now.”
Crazy isn’t the word for Kuechly, unless you’re talking about some of his statistics (see his 24-tackle performance in a Week 16 win vs. New Orleans).
Kuechly’s not a big drinker or club-hopper. Teammates say they often find him lifting weights or studying video at Bank of America Stadium, even when he’s not required to be there.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise Kuechly talked excitedly this week about being back in the stadium, where he caught up with old teammates, met the new ones and missed those no longer around.
“It’s definitely different,” Kuechly said of the roster turnover. “You still have the main guys there. The biggest difference is I think you notice guys not here. For us, (cornerback) Captain Munnerlyn was one. You guys know how he was. He was always talking, so he’s one guy that’s like, ‘Where is he?’ And then he’s not here.”
The Panthers made several changes in their secondary, signing cornerback Antoine Cason and former NFC South safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud after losing Munnerlyn and free safety Mike Mitchell in free agency.
General manager Dave Gettleman is cobbling together the defensive backfield much like he did last year with the self-proclaimed “No-Name Secondary.”
“I think it’s definitely pieced together, but the pieces are good,” Kuechly said. “You look at the guys we’ve got back there – Roman Harper’s been to the playoffs, been to the Pro Bowl. Thomas DeCoud’s been the playoffs, Pro Bowl. Melvin (White) played great last year. Antoine Cason is going to come in and help him out. Charles Godfrey will be back.”
But the teeth of the defense – as it was when the Panthers finished second behind Seattle in total defense in 2013 – is expected to be the front seven, which returns intact. Gettleman put the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy at a cost of $13.1 million, re-signed outside linebacker Thomas Davis and brought back defensive tackle Colin Cole.
Asked about the front seven, Kuechly talked about the defensive tackles, who helped keep blockers off him during a 176-tackle season.
The Panthers employed a four-man rotation at defensive tackle in 2013; all four – Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Dwan Edwards and Cole – are back.
“I don’t think those guys really care how much they play, they just want to go out and win,” Kuechly said. “I think that’s something that was a lot of fun last year.”
Kuechly was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 when he set a franchise record with 205 tackles. After becoming the first Panther to win AP Defensive Player of the Year, Kuechly pointed to two areas where he can improve: pass rush and coverage.
Kuechly said teams hit a couple of big plays against Carolina last season when he failed to get to the quarterback on the blitz. His pass interference penalty at Buffalo and near-PI against New England were closely dissected in the media.
“Working on some moves, working on counter-moves. ... I think that will allow me to do some more things,” he said. “Last year I got stuck in a couple spots in pass rush and it led to big plays because they were counting on me getting there and I wasn’t quite able to.”
Kuechly has been the defensive leader and signal-caller since taking over for Jon Beason early in his rookie season. He was a captain for the first time last year, but plans to let Davis continue to handle most of the speeches and pre-game talks.
“I would rather just talk to guys, ask what they’re feeling, what they like to do and lead by example,” Kuechly said. “I think leading’s about doing what’s natural to you, because if you do what’s natural to you guys will follow it. If you do something that’s unnatural they’re going to know it’s forced.”
Panthers center Ryan Kalil, who also was a first-time captain last year, said Kuechly’s a natural leader.
“Luke’s the epitome of that,” Kalil said. “Just somebody who does it right day in and day out.”