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David Mayo is solid insurance for Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- David Mayo tries not to think about being the guy that would replace Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly should the Carolina Panthers middle linebacker suffer an injury this season.

He knows there’s a possibility, mind you. Kuechly has missed nine games over the past two seasons dealing with concussions.

Mayo just prefers not to think about that.

But Mayo, a fifth-round pick in 2015, has proven during the preseason that he’s ready to fill Kuechly’s big shoes if necessary. He had arguably the best preseason of any non-starter on defense, leading the team with 25 tackles.

He also had an interception, albeit a “gimme" after blitzing cornerback Teddy Williams disrupted the pass in Thursday night’s preseason finale against Pittsburgh.

“I feel ready to go at any moment," Mayo said. “I’ll continue to work as the season progresses and just be ready to fill that spot."

Solidifying the spot behind Kuechly didn’t get a lot of attention during training camp because Mayo impressed from the outset. But it was important because the Panthers didn’t re-sign A.J. Klein, who had been Kuechly’s backup the past few years.

“I try not to think about that too much," Mayo said. “For me, I just try to focus on improving the game I have. Every year I feel more comfortable just learning the defense, and off of that it’s allowing me think less and play faster, which is allowing me to play better."

Kuechly has been a “tackling machine" -- as he was dubbed at Boston College -- with a league-best 693 tackles since the Panthers made him the ninth pick of the 2012 draft. His 12 interceptions during that span lead all NFL linebackers.

He is to the defense what quarterback Cam Newton is to the offense.

Without Kuechly for six games last season the Panthers went from four straight years of ranking in the top 10 in the league on defense to 21st.

So it was important to make sure his replacement could handle play-calling and everything else that Kuechly does.

Mayo gave a hint that he could be that guy in last year’s finale. He solidified the organization’s faith in him during the preseason.

This isn’t a huge surprise. Like Keuchly, Mayo was known as a “tackling machine" at Texas State. In 2014, he was the nation’s second-leading tackler with 154 and the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.

He also was known as a hard worker, a player that would do anything to succeed. His draft-day story about how in 2011 he rented a shed for $450 a month because the cost of living was so high in West Los Angeles was priceless.

He talked about how he had no electricity, plumbing or insulation, just four walls and a concrete wall and how he worked at a church within walking distance to help pay the bills.

His play thus far has set him up for a pretty good payday after his rookie deals expires following the 2018 season.

But Mayo is focused on the immediate future, and for the Panthers that looks good.

“My understanding of the defense is just huge," he said. “[That] and understanding the different route concepts and where I belong and what windows to cover. It’s different when you know the defense.

“But when you start understanding concepts and where they’re trying to attack you, it really helps you."