Luke Kuechly’s cubby in the Carolina Panthers locker room has been emptier than normal this week as the All-Pro linebacker deals with a concussion and tries to work himself back to the field.
But across from where Kuechly usually stands, in back corner of the room, there was a huddle of reporters where usually there might not be one.
The suddenly-busy locker belongs to David Mayo, Kuechly’s primary backup and the man who will start in Kuechly’s place if he can’t go against the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
“Every day I prepare to go in, and so I was prepared to go in at the time,” Mayo said. “Nothing’s changed. Recipe’s the same, and I’ll get ready to play if need be.”
When Kuechly suffered a concussion last season that cost him the last six games, Mayo wasn’t the man asked to step up. That was A.J. Klein, who filled in admirably and parlayed that performance into a free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints.
That left Mayo, a 2015 fifth-round pick out of Texas State, as the primary fill-in for the NFL’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. In Mayo’s first two years, he had 28 total tackles in reserve work.
Then Klein signed his deal, and in the preseason this year, Mayo showed the potential that the Panthers coaching staff believed he had. At one point he led the NFL in preseason tackles, and he finished with 25 in four games. He also had an interception and two passed defensed in the preseason. He credited extra work in the film room with Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson.
“Those guys are so good – (Luke) and TD and Shaq (Thompson) – and they prepare so well, I prepare with them and learn a lot from them,” Mayo said, “because even though I may not be starting the game ... I can absorb all that as well.”
Kuechly has yet to participate fully in practice this week and appears unlikely to play Chicago on Sunday. If he’s out, not only will Mayo be starting, but he’ll be in charge of defensive playcalling, a responsibility that also normally falls to Kuechly.
“When I’m playing the Mike, yeah I’ll be making calls and stuff like that,” Mayo said. “Feel good about it, work at it all the time throughout training camp ... so I’ll be ready to go.”
So far this year, Mayo has five tackles, three in Carolina’s loss to the Eagles after Kuechly came out in the second quarter. Mayo also had a pass defensed in that game. That said, he struggled somewhat in pass coverage against Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense. Carolina hadn’t allowed a touchdown when Kuechly exited the game, but Wentz threw three touchdown passes after he did.
There’s no telling how long Kuechly might be out given his history of head injuries, but Mayo will have to fill that gap. The team also signed linebacker Andrew Gachkar as insurance.
Coach Ron Rivera said he was pleased with Mayo’s fill-in work against the Eagles.
“Very, very comfortable with the way that David handled things,” Rivera said. “Smart football player, physical guy, plays downhill, handles things very well.
“David’s a solid football player and did a great job.”