Carolina embrace their own Clark Kent

Panthers linebacker's rise mirrors that of his team

Luke Kuechly has emerged as a standout at middle linebacker in just his second year with the Carolina Panthers. Grant Halverson / Getty Images
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How appropriate that the Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is a devoted viewer of films. With his muscular body and nerdy glasses to combat nearsightedness, he commonly is referred to as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter and alter ego of the cinematic do-gooder Superman.

Except Kuechly’s videos centre on game footage of upcoming NFL opponents. In a word-association test, his name often inspires the response “instinctive,” but a knack for being at the right place at the right time is owed just as much to intense preparation.

The film study has helped Kuechly (pronounced KEEK-lee) stave off the sophomore slump that afflicts many players coming off remarkable rookie seasons.

One statistic might suggest a decline. After amassing more tackles last season than anyone by a substantial margin, he ranks sixth this year, but that is largely because offences are assigning additional players to block him.

His instincts and preparation were never more evident than when he dropped back into zone coverage and prevented a completion to New England’s Rob Gronkowski in the end zone that preserved a Panthers win.

“You can see him key in and diagnose formationally as well as anyone,” the New Orleans coach Sean Payton told in the build-up to the Saints-Panthers Part 1 two weeks ago. The rematch happens on Sunday at Carolina, with the NFC South title on the line.

Payton said that Kuechly can “see formations and understand what he’s going to have to defend. He’s a great tackler. He’s playing outstanding.”

That Carolina are on the cusp of Super Bowl contention is due less to the offence steered by another young Panther, third-year quarterback Cam Newton, than the defence. Only Seattle’s is stingier.

It is the middle linebacker who communicates formations to the unit and repositions players. The role is customarily held by a veteran player of the Ray Lewis mould.

By mid-season last year, the Panthers dropped the heavy duty job onto Kuechly. Being Clark Kent/Superman, he handled it deftly.

“He’s everything you look for in a middle linebacker,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief told “He’s instinctual. He flies around, plays with great effort ...

“He’s got speed to cover out of the backfield. He’s got size to match up with bigger tights ends.”

No tight end is more of a pass-catching threat than the Saints’ Jimmy Graham, making for an exciting match-up. One weakness of Kuechly is overaggressive coverage that has led to penalties and the occasional big gain after he failed to put the receiver off his route.

“He’s just got to work at it and get better,” said the Carolina coach Ron Rivera, a former linebacker and head of the unofficial Kuechly fan club. “And he will.”