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Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly ready for fun to begin

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who celebrated his 24th birthday on the first day of offseason workouts on Monday, probably couldn’t think of a way he’d rather spend the day.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who celebrated his 24th birthday on the first day of offseason workouts on Monday, probably couldn’t think of a way he’d rather spend the day. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Voluntary offseason workouts began Monday and so did voluntary interviews with the media. As Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen walked away from the interview room lectern, linebacker Luke Kuechly walked to it. Olsen offered his left hand and Kuechly reached up and slapped it with his right.

This was no voluntary offseason workout hand slap. This was a fourth-and-1, passion in the huddle, playoff hand slap. Even on tape the impact resonates. Olsen probably is fortunate Kuechly didn’t tackle him.

To say that one player likes football more than another is foolish. Carolina’s locker room is crammed with players who love their sport. I don’t think it’s possible for a player to love reporting for offseason workouts more than Kuechly does.

“I was excited to wake up and come in because I got to see everybody,” he says excitedly.

“This is like the first day back to school. Get to see all your buddies, all the new guys, and I think guys are definitely excited about this year.”

The new players – the Panthers have added 10 – “all seem like great guys,” says Kuechly. “A lot of good dudes.”

Carolina selected Kuechly with the ninth pick in the 2012 draft, and in three seasons he has been Defensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and twice made the Pro Bowl. To suggest that his NFL career has been rather good would not be a stretch.

Yet I don’t think Kuechly would go that far. At training camp last season I tried to get him to acknowledge (coming off his Defensive Player of the Year season) he could play. He wouldn’t. But what about when nobody’s around, I asked. Do you ever say I’m Luke Kuechly and I’m pretty good, even if it’s merely to a mirror?

I had a better chance of beating him on a curl route than getting him to say yes.

There are backs who can beat him. Kuechly said last season he wanted to improve his pass coverage (and pass rush). He still does. He also wants to do better work with his hands. He wants to use those hands to shed blockers, to get on them and then get off, creating space.

“If you can’t play with your hands you can’t play,” Kuechly says.

By focusing on his hands now, he hopes to have them ready when he reports to training camp. Voluntary workouts are not as hectic as camp, and they offer time. He’ll use some of that time to get to know new teammates.

“I think we made some good additions,” he says. “I’m just really excited to meet all the new guys and see what they’re all about.”

Kuechly knows, at least from a distance, what cornerback Charles Tillman is about. The Panthers signed him two weeks ago.

“He seems like a good dude who’s willing to come in here and work,” Kuechly says.

He wants to hang with the old guys, too, including the defensive line.

“The four guys that play in front of us are awesome,” Kuechly says. “They make my job a lot easier. And it’s fun playing with those guys and being around them. I like the guys in front of me, and hopefully, they like me.”

The Panthers will soon exercise the fifth-year option on the contract Kuechly signed as a rookie. He appears not to be worried.

“I’m excited to be here,” he says. “I think you guys know that by now. And that stuff will take care of itself, and I’m just here to run around and play football.”

And sit at his computer and in about two weeks get his marketing degree from Boston College. I tell him he can market himself. He says no he can’t.

Kuechly is as good at his job as anybody on Carolina’s roster, and as humble. The danger is that some of us believe every athlete should be Kuechly, as if there’s one true way to handle oneself and this is it. I heard the same thing about Jordan Spieth 1 1/2 weeks ago when he won the Masters.

Both men are unassuming and unpretentious and cool. But what a boring world it would be if everybody adhered to their prototype. There is no prototype. There is no one true way.

There’s merely a Carolina middle linebacker who works very hard to put himself in position to succeed, and who on the first day of voluntary workouts turned 24.

What’s 24 like?

“It’s new,” Kuechly says. “Just turned it (Monday).”

To find out what 24 is like he says he’ll talk to other 24-year-olds.

And then he’ll probably find film about how to be 24. On a nice spring day, he’ll huddle in front of a large screen and watch.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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