When it comes to football, Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has all of the answers.
In fact, his ability to analyze the game and out-duel quarterbacks when making defensive calls drew veteran defensive end Julius Peppers to compare Kuechly to one of the all-time greats at linebacker – Brian Urlacher – and to one of the current greats at quarterback – Aaron Rodgers.
Kuechly also sees how the NFL is evolving – with shifty, hybrid players the current trend, including on the Panthers’ own offense with running back Christian McCaffrey and receiver Curtis Samuel, and their defense with linebacker Shaq Thompson – and what it might mean years from now.
The Observer sat down with Kuechly for a one-on-one interview on Tuesday:
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Q: When you’ve noticed this trend kind of spread over the last several years, who is first? Is it defenses that are trying to counter the way offenses are moving? Or the other way around, or they’re just trying to race each other?
A: I think it’s a little bit of both. You look at some teams, they’re trying to run 11-personnel the whole game. A lot is spread out. There’s not as much downhill two-back, lead, power. A lot of teams don’t do that as much anymore. I think the game just ebbs and flows, and right now we’re in the flow of spread ’em out and throw it around. At some point, I’m sure it’s going to get back to, you know, loading the box up and running downhill at people. That’s just how the game evolves. I’m sure it’ll go back to where it was, but right now, if you can run, you can play.
Q: It’s kind of interesting, because in most professional sports – and in life, really – you see kind of a trickle-down effect. But the way the NFL is trending seems to be a trickle-up effect. Because high schools started spreading the field out and working those hybrid players and quick passes, and college, and then the NFL. Have you noticed that?
A: You know, Thomas (Davis) was a safety when he got here. And now he’s playing linebacker. So I think big safeties can play linebacker and it’s just kind of trended that way, with guys being able to run. And if you can get a guy who can play strong in the run game, but he can also cover guys, I think that’s where the real key comes in. When you have tight ends like we have now, and we’ve got a bunch of good ones in our division, and you have to try to cover a guy like Greg Olsen – do you put a safety on him? Do you put a linebacker on him? You create matchup problems and if you have a big guy that can run, that helps.
Q: We see how good (Atlanta Falcons pass-catching running back) Devonta Freeman is in space – have you seen the draft market kind of increase toward hybrid players like that? How do teams counter?
A: I think you’ve got to be able to run. To play linebacker, and a lot of it is spread it out, throw it around. You look at a lot of linebackers that are coming out right now, especially in our division, and we don’t have a lot of big linebackers. Especially with Tampa, those two guys, they’re super good. And then Deion Jones in Atlanta is a speed guy. Thomas (Davis) can run. Shaq plays in the slot...All of those guys can run. I think with the way the NFL is trending, with guys spreading it out and dumping the ball quick in the flat, having quick little shifty guys that can make guys miss, it’s a real benefit to have guys that can run. When you look around the league, the good guys who can play well can run.
Speed helps a lot of things. It can cover up mistakes. I think with the evolution of the offense, with spreading things out more, the better you can run, the better you can be.
Q: When you watch the infinitesimal steps the game takes to evolve, how does that change the way you have to see the field?
A: Well, luckily for me, I haven’t really had to see too much of the change. I think a lot of teams still run that two-back stuff. But I think you get used to seeing teams run one-back runs, you just get used to it. I don’t think it’s something that’s really difficult to pick up on. A majority of teams run the same stuff – it’s just how quickly you can adapt to it.
Q: Julius Peppers said something to me a couple of weeks ago that really stuck with me, when you came back (after missing a game while in the concussion protocol). He said that he would compare you defensively to Brian Urlacher. And he also had an offensive player that you match up to: Aaron Rodgers.
A: Oh, man. I don’t know about that. Aaron Rodgers is on a different planet. And so is Brian. Those guys’ ability to see the field and understand what they need to do versus what is being shown to them on the other side of the ball, you know, I didn’t ever get to play on the other side of the ball from Brian, but (Greg) Olsen played with him. And he said he was so smart, and he saw things quickly. He was able to make little adjustments during the game to make himself be successful. Aaron Rodgers is the same exact way. I got to play against him a few times and it’s amazing what those good quarterbacks can do at the line of scrimmage. It makes the game fun, but it also makes it difficult because they see everything a half-step faster than a lot of people.
Q: I remember you geeked out a little bit when you first saw Julius Peppers. So hearing him say that about you, and knowing your game – how does him comparing you to those two make you feel?
A: He’s Julius Peppers. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s broken all kinds of records already this year. It’s fun to play with a guy like that. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had guys like that. Jordan Gross was like that when I first got here, and Steve Smith. Then we had Jared Allen last year. You play with guys who are big-name guys, and you grow up watching them and it’s fun to play with those guys. You kind of take for granted guys like Thomas, and Ryan (Kalil) and Greg because when I was young in my career, I played with a majority of those guys that I mentioned and then a couple years ago when Jared was there, he was quite a bit older than I was. And Pep is kind of the same way. Just a guy that you grew up watching. It’s cool, that’s what makes the game fun. You have all of these age groups...And Pep is one of those guys it’s fun to play with.