HONOLULU — Less than a half-hour into the first Pro Bowl practice of his career, Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was shouting instructions to Terrell Suggs, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker in his 11th season.
Kuechly wanted to make sure Suggs knew to cover the tight end in the flat against a certain offensive alignment.
Just as quickly as Kuechly emerged as the Panthers’ defensive leader over his first two seasons, the former Boston College standout is making his mark among the league’s best players here this week.
Kuechly will call the defensive signals for the team headed by “alumni captain” Deion Sanders during Sunday’s Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium.
There may be players more experienced (Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten) or more vocal (Dez Bryant, DeSean Jackson) than Kuechly in Sunday’s game, but few figure to be more prepared.
Kuechly’s high football intellect and mental focus made him an easy choice to lead the defense, according to at least one member of the Indianapolis Colts’ staff coaching Sanders’ team this week.
“Smart, intelligent, good football player,” Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said.
“From a details standpoint, you know when players know exactly what they’re doing. And that’s what he’s doing,” Manusky added. “He’s getting everybody lined up. He’s getting the calls out. You need a guy like that on any team that you have. He’s doing a great job.”
Kuechly, named the Associated Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 after leading the league in tackles, said it’s cool playing alongside players he watched as a kid.
“You grow up watching a lot of these guys. I grew up watching (Chiefs outside linebacker) Tamba Hali and Suggs and some other guys. You watch those guys and go, ‘Man, those are some studs,’ ” Kuechly said. “So it’s kind of cool to be out with those guys now.”
Kuechly brought his mom and a buddy from BC with him to Hawaii. His dad stayed in Cincinnati because Kuechly’s younger brother, Henry, had a high school basketball game Friday night against a big rival.
Kuechly plans to head to the North Shore this week to see the 40- and 50-feet waves, the biggest on Oahu in a decade. One area Kuechly had no interest in seeing: the nightclubs at Waikiki Beach.
“I’m not going to go to any,” Kuechly said. “I just hang out. That’s what I do.”
Kuechly, 22, said he allows himself an occasional beer or two in the offseason but doesn’t drink during the season.
Panthers center Ryan Kalil said he called Kuechly one night last offseason to go to dinner when Kalil’s wife was out of town for a wedding. Kuechly said he would change his scheduled plans – stopping by Bank of America Stadium for a soak in the hot and cold tubs and some film study.
“This is at 6 o’clock at night, out of season,” Kalil said.
Kuechly can’t watch the NFL Network at his uptown apartment because he doesn’t have cable.
“He’s about as clean-cut as they come. He’s an All-American kid,” Kalil said. “He doesn’t have Internet. He just reads books. That’s what he does for fun.”
Well, that and football.
Kuechly finished fourth in the league in tackles this season, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
Kuechly was beaten in coverage in some critical moments. He got turned around on San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis’ 1-yard touchdown catch at the end of the first half of the Panthers’ playoff loss to the 49ers.
But that’s nit-picking, according to Kalil.
“I’ve played with good football players, and he’s one of the best guys I’ve ever been around – from a production standpoint, from a preparation standpoint. Guys love to be around him,” Kalil said. “He’s an awesome guy off the field. He does everything you want a guy like him to do. He’s extremely humble and sincere.”
Kuechly went back to BC last winter to continue working on his degree, and will take online classes this offseason.
In the meantime, he’s soaking up his first Pro Bowl trip. He and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton have drawn some of the loudest screams for autographs after practices this week.
Kuechly also has quickly won over his Pro Bowl teammates.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was working out at the hotel gym Friday morning along with Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny, who told McDermott how much he’s enjoyed working with Kuechly.
“That’s Luke,” McDermott said. “He’s a joy to be around and a joy to coach.”
If the Panthers aren’t in the Super Bowl, Kuechly said he’d like the Pro Bowl trip to become an annual part of his offseason itinerary.
“Super Bowl would be the best thing,” he said. “But as long as I play hard and do my job hopefully I end up back here.”
If he’s in Hawaii next year, Kuechly might even bring his girlfriend, an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati. Until then, as he does from different cities for every away game, Kuechly can drop her a postcard.
“I usually do,” he said.