Luke Kuechly sets standard for Panthers

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Luke Kuechly is watching four teammates play a friendly game of cards as he waits for the dining hall to open late Monday afternoon. He's excited about dinner, but more excited about the Carolina Panthers' team meeting and walk-through that will follow.

Then he'll sleep.

The Panthers' third-year middle linebacker wouldn't watch television even if he had one in his Wofford College dorm room, although he finally does have cable for his television back home in Charlotte, North Carolina, which seemed almost like a news story when he confirmed it.

His training camp routine is consistent: Breakfast, practice, lunch, meetings, dinner, meetings, sleep.

You won't see him playing pingpong with kicker Graham Gano or taking a nap on one of the couches outside the dining hall like you do others.

That it took five days of camp to get around to a story about the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year has nothing to do with him not doing anything worthy of writing about. He just makes everything look so easy and does it so well you almost forget he's there.

Kuechly is a coach's dream. He doesn't create problems off the field, but he creates a lot of problems for opponents on it.

He also signs more autographs than arguably any Carolina player, particularly in training camp where shouts of "Luuuuuuke!" rank close to, if not ahead of, shouts of "Cam!"

Asked jokingly if he ever gets writer's cramps, he laughs and says, "No, no, I'm good. Those guys come out and watch us, so you've got to show a little appreciation."

Success changes some athletes. Not Kuechly. He's as down to earth and humble now as the day the Panthers selected him with the ninth pick of the 2012 draft. He seemed almost embarrassed during an offseason fundraiser when the wife of four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon bid $6,000 to play a round of golf with him.

Other than driving a pace car for the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, starring on the first mini-trailer for "Madden NFL 15" and going to the Super Bowl, he has spent most of his down time looking for ways to get better.

He's got a one-track mind now -- OK, almost always -- and it's all about football. As good and focused as he is, you can't shock him into talking about himself. One writer tried, asking if he ever sits alone in a room and says, "Man, I'm good!"

"No," Kuechly said with a big smile. "The thing I like about football is it's a team game."

He went on to talk about the front seven and other players who make it possible for him to collect tackles faster than any player in the league since he arrived. In two full seasons, he has 330, including 24 last season in a Dec. 22 victory against New Orleans that tied an NFL single-game record.

He really is a "tackling machine" as he was dubbed at Boston College. He just doesn't tackle questions and attention very well.

"Unless you were to truly feature him as you're watching him, you don't see the little things that he does," coach Ron Rivera said.

Kuechly also is a role model for what the Panthers want to become.

"Luke is one of the standards we have on this team," quarterback Cam Newton said. "He's low maintenance, but he brings to the table a hard-working guy that strives for excellence each and every time he's between the lines. He's a great role model not only for the first-team defense, but everybody that watches him."

Kuechly is a big reason Carolina's defense should remain one of the best in the league as it was last season when it finished second, behind Super Bowl champion Seattle. And that's a big reason there are fewer concerns about replacing key players on offense.

"I told the offense a couple of days ago, the challenge is already set," Newton said. "This is a top-five defense we're going against each and every day in practice. If we can be effective against this, we're setting the standard for ourselves."

Kuechly sets a standard every time he walks onto the field or walks into a room. He's not all that interested in the endorsements his fame has brought, especially now that camp has begun.

He's all about practice, meetings, eating and sleeping.

"Even if I had a TV in my room," he said, "I probably wouldn't watch it."