Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has made more than 600 tackles during his first four seasons, including the playoffs.
But Saturday might have been the first time Panthers coach Ron Rivera was nervous watching Kuechly hit a ball-carrier.
When Kuechly met fullback Mike Tolbert in the hole early in the full-pads practice at Wofford, it did not result in a big collision or send Tolbert to the ground.
But it allowed Rivera to breathe a little easier after Kuechly came away unscathed from his first real contact since Super Bowl 50.
I’m not overly concerned about it. And I think after this practice hopefully everyone else can kind of calm down about it a little bit, too.
Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, on his first contact since shoulder surgery
“Luke looked good. You always worry about it. But the very first time we get in the 9-on-7 drill he steps up and makes a hit,” Rivera said. “So he looked good and I know as far as he’s concerned now that’s off his back, having to worry about how he’s going to take the first shot.”
As it turns out, the coaching staff was more anxious than Kuechly, who underwent shoulder surgery in February to repair his left labrum. After five months of rehab and strength exercises, Kuechly says he never doubted whether his shoulder would hold up when the tackling resumed.
“I’m not overly concerned about it,” Kuechly said. “And I think after this practice hopefully everyone else can kind of calm down about it a little bit, too.”
Put another way: Move along, nothing to see here.
Still in a harness
Kuechly is still wearing the shoulder harness that he wore throughout the postseason after injuring the shoulder in Week 17 against Tampa Bay. If the injury and brace limited Kuechly during the postseason it was tough to tell.
His 29 postseason tackles were more than any other player, and he became the first linebacker in the Super Bowl era to return interceptions for touchdowns in two playoff games.
Kuechly indicated he’ll continue to wear the harness during practices with the hope of going without it once the season starts. He said his shoulder has nearly returned to full strength.
“Obviously not doing anything on that side for a couple months is going to limit you a little bit,” he said. “But I’d say it’s pretty much all the way back, which is good (and) makes me happy. Just got to keep trying to get it stronger.”
An eventful 2015
Kuechly’s fourth season was an eventful one, beginning with the concussion he sustained Week 1 at Jacksonville that sidelined him for three games. Despite the missed time, Kuechly led the team in tackles for the fourth consecutive season and tied a career high with four interceptions.
Kuechly said his most memorable moment was celebrating while confetti fell at Bank of America Stadium following the victory over Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.
“I thought that was just cool,” he said. “When you’re with all your guys and the stadium’s going crazy and you realize what you accomplished, it’s cool.”
No player has more tackles than Kuechly’s 591 regular-season stops since he entered the league in 2012. He’s improved his pass coverage to the point that last season Pro Football Focus named him the league’s top coverage defender at any position.
Now he wants to improve his pass-rush skills. Kuechly, who had one sack in 2015 and has seven for his career, pointed to teammates Thomas Davis as a linebacker who knows how to finish a blitz.
“I’ve just got to get a better feel for it,” Kuechly said.
Given Kuechly’s film-study habits and game and practice preparations, don’t bet against him.
“Luke is incredible. This guy knows pretty much the play before it comes,” defensive end Kony Ealy said. “So if that ain’t some super talents I don’t know what is.”
Competition with Cam
In addition to working on his blitzes, Kuechly also will try to intercept Cam Newton, whose stated goal is to make it through camp without getting picked off by Davis or Kuechly.
“I heard he said something about that,” said Kuechly, smiling. “Shaq (Thompson) already got him, so Shaq’s got the one-up on us right now. So we’ve got to do our best to get one on Cam. I missed one earlier, but hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.”
The same goes for when his shoulder strength is 100 percent and Rivera – and everyone else – can stop worrying.
“It’s felt good and I think we took all the steps in the rehab process to make sure it was strong and in the right spot, make sure everything was good in there,” Kuechly said. “So when you get in there you don’t think about that. You think about what’s going on in the play.”