Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly ranks in the Top 5 in tackles as an NFL rookie this year. And when he was a senior at St. Xavier (Cincinnati, Ohio) back in the fall of 2008, he was named the Greater Catholic League’s top defensive back.
Hard to believe he wasn’t always a tacking machine. In fact, early in his high school career Kuechly struggled to earn playing time on junior varsity. He was a late bloomer who flew under the radar at St. Xavier.
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“A long, gangly kid,” as described by St. Xavier coach Steve Specht, Kuechly played sparingly as a freshman, then broke his foot as a sophomore and missed most of the season.
By the time he was a junior, things changed. Kuechly, who previously played tight end, bulked up to 6-foot-3, 190 pounds and earned the only open starting spot on defense – linebacker – thanks to his speed and quick change of direction.
“He was picking up everything we wanted him to do defensively,” Specht said. “This was all new to him, too.”
As a junior that first year on defense, Kuechly had 147 tackles to help an extremely deep St. Xavier team go 15-0 and win the Division I state title.
After the season, Kuechly started getting attention from college coaches, though not from The Ohio States or Notre Dames of the college football world. The neglect came partly because St. Xavier had so many seniors overshadowing Kuechly, but also because of his size. Or lack thereof.
“[Coaches] would say, ‘We don’t know if he’s big enough to play linebacker,” Specht said. “I’d tell him, ‘You’re missing the boat on him.’ The way he moved, you could tell he was going to be a difference-maker.”
Despite being passed over by football powerhouses, plenty of high-end academic schools showered Kuechly with attention — Duke, Boston College, Vanderbilt and Stanford, amongst others.
That fit his personality well. Kuechly was insistent on learning the game, constantly flooding Specht with questions.
“It was refreshing as a coach,” he said. “Not too many kids at this level other than a quarterback are really going to do that.”
It paid off. By the time he was a senior, Kuechly had grown faster, stronger and bigger at 220 pounds. Specht switched Kuechly to free safety, the playmaker in St. Xavier’s scheme.
“We’d move him all over the field,” Specht said. “He’d close so much ground so fast, and when he hit you he hit you two or three times before you hit the ground. It was exciting to watch.”
Kuechly wrapped the season with one sack, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception.
He then suited up at linebacker for Boston College, where his school-record 532 tackles (299 solo) helped him become one of the most decorated defensive players in college football history.
Which makes it fitting that he’s already one of the leading tacklers in the NFL.
For more on Kuechly's journey, visit www.usatodayhss.com/etp.