Evolution is a part of nature. Every day, the Earth’s organisms are adapting to their surroundings in order to become bigger, better, faster, and stronger. Why? Survival. This planet isn’t one of stagnation. In order to stay on top of the food chain, you have to break away from mediocrity: you must innovate.
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin
The same rule of species applies to football players. While some chose to play the same game over time, others modify their play to compete with the constant chaos that is the NFL. There is always a way to improve, as long as there is a will. Luke Kuechly knows this, and that is why he will always remain on top of the food chain.
In the 2012 NFL Draft, the Panthers selected Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly with the 9th overall pick. The move was a head-scratcher for fans and analysts everywhere. Carolina had a proven middle linebacker in Jon Beason, so why draft Kuechly? His skill was not questioned, but many didn’t think he was a need for the Panthers’ roster.
No one knew at that time how much of an impact the young player from BC would truly make.
Kuechly strugged at first. Forced to play at weakside linebacker, an unnatural position for the rookie, Kuechly only recorded 12 individual tackles over 4 games. The pundits were starting to look like geniuses, as the Panthers’ first round pick appeared to be an unwise decision. And then, just as the doubt started to roll in, an unfortunate injury to Jon Beason became the catalyst for Kuechly’s launch to stardom.
After the Beason injury, Kuechly was put at his natural position: the Mike. And when I say natural, I mean it in every sense of the word, simply because nothing else does justice to the fluidity and pure intelligence of his game. For the remainder of the season, a non-double digit tackling performance for Kuechly was rare. He became to be known as the tackling machine league-wide, a menace for offensive coordinators everywhere. Chants of ‘LUUUUKE’ from Bank of America Stadium were heard within a 10 mile radius, and 164 tackle season earned him the prestigious award of Rookie of the Year.
Little did everyone know, the linebacker was just getting started.
Entering his 2nd year in the league, many doubted that Kuechly could live up to the hype of his rookie season. A sophomore slump seemed evident, and he was just made to seem a shining star by an otherwise dim defense. The skepticism didn’t last long however, and by the 3rd game of the preseason, critics’ hands were tied by the laces of the footballs that Kuechly caused to be knocked loose. He recorded 7 tackles, 2 passes defended, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble. From that point, Kuechly showed the world that he had no intention to regress.
While Kuechly made the point of regression an absolute myth, he also made the intention of improving every aspect of his game. While tackling was obviously his forte, his coverage skills in 2012 left a lot to be desired. Unconvinced analysts saw this as Kuechly’s eventual downfall, as he struggled with reading the pass in college as well. A true successful linebacker in the NFL needs to have a well-rounded game, and improvement was necessary to continue to succeed.
By the 2nd game of the season, the sophomore year stud had made leaps and bounds in his coverage game. He showed the ability to read the pass as well as he did the run. He had his first interception of the season against E.J. Manuel and the Bills, which would later be the 1st of 4 for 2013. Add 7 passes defended along with that total, and Kuechly was well on his way to becoming a ‘do-everything’ linebacker in the NFL.
With his impressive performance in the 2012 season came a vote for captain by his teammates. There Luke Kuechly was, with only a rookie season under his belt and a captain patch on his jersey. The Carolina sophomore didn’t just view the honor as just a patch, he wore it as the heart on his sleeve, as he truly became a leader for the Panthers defense. As a rookie, Kuechly would record impressive game-by-game stats, but never really took control of a game.
In 2013, that changed.
In multiple games throughout the Panthers 12-4 season, Kuechly behaved as leaders should, and transformed into a monster with the game on the line. In Miami, he played shutdown defense, stopping Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins offense when a score from the opposition was truly not an option. In San Francisco, Kuechly became a nightmare for Colin Kaepernick, as he was the driving force for the defensive effort that limited him to a total of 93 passing yards. In a divisional game vs. the Saints, the MLB recorded TWENTY-FOUR tackles in a win that catapulted the team to their first division championship since 2008. Kuechly wasn’t just performing well in close games, he was DOMINATING in them.
Kuechly is a name you’ll hear for years to come. It isn’t just because he won Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year consecutively. It isn’t because he’s the captain of one of the best defenses in the league. It’s because he will always adapt, always improve, and always transform in order to become the best there ever was.
As long as Luke Kuechly is breathing, he will continue to evolve.