THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Kuechly made a sudden impact

BC linebacker ahead of schedule

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 25, 2009

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Everything has its place.

It’s like the golden rule for neat freaks, and Luke Kuechly is a neat freak.

His locker is so immaculate that he’d notice if so much as a sock were out of place. He’s the only person on the BC football team who actually folds his clothes. He’s the guy who sees a cell phone lying on the floor - bothering no one, just charging - and has to pick it up.

“I told him one time, I’m going to come to his locker and rearrange everything just to mess with him,’’ said junior safety Wes Davis.

But the neatness, the order, the attention to detail, they’re all things that make the freshman linebacker who he is.

“It shows up in the way he plays football,’’ Davis said. “He’s very meticulous. Very focused on the details.’’

A year ago, Kuechly still was deciding whether BC was where he wanted to play football, especially with a coaching situation that seemed unstable. Just four months ago, he was almost certain he would redshirt his first season with the Eagles, until injuries to upperclassmen made him a starter. Now, with the Eagles set to meet Southern Cal tomorrow night in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco, Kuechly has 142 tackles and is the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Rookie of the Year.

It’s a place no one thought Kuechly would be in when the season started.

“It was like we got a Christmas present in August,’’ said coach Frank Spaziani.

A slight hitch in the plan
Kuechly considered Duke, Stanford, and Virginia, but he had his eyes set on The Heights. It was a Jesuit school like St. Xavier, where he played his high school ball in Cincinnati. And talent from that school - including center Pat Ross, defensive end Nick Larkin, and defensive lineman Alex Albright - had funneled to BC for years.

But in January, the BC coaching saga had Kuechly rethinking things. Ultimately, athletic director Gene DeFilippo fired Jeff Jagodzinski, who wanted to test the waters in the NFL.

“I had taken all the visits. I really liked all the schools,’’ Kuechly said. “I kind of had my eyes on Boston College, but then Coach Jags ended up leaving, and I kind of had to step back. I was unsure what was going to happen, and I kind of let things digest a little bit.’’

He got a hold of Albright, and talked to him. He talked to the coach that recruited him, Ben Sirmans. Then he found out that the Eagles would stay within the program and go with Spaziani, who had been on the coaching staff for 12 years.

“I think that was really the main thing for me,’’ Kuechly said. “It was somebody still in the system in Coach Spaz vs. somebody outside of the team who nobody really knew about and nobody had any experience with.’’

BC’s decision made Kuechly more comfortable with the decision he would make.

“He chose the school for all the right reasons,’’ said Spaziani. “So there wasn’t too much wavering after he realized what the plan was here.’’

Getting comfortable on the field was a different process entirely. Kuechly figured he knew his place before he came in. In Mark Herzlich, the Eagles had the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a Butkus Award finalist. But in May, Herzlich announced he was battling cancer.

Sophomore linebacker Will Thompson was slated as the starting middle linebacker after Mike McLaughlin tore his Achilles’ tendon, and the idea was that when McLaughlin returned, Thompson would slide to the outside. Then Thompson hurt his shoulder.

Through attrition, Kuechly went from an unassuming freshman to a starter.

“I kind of expected to come in, work hard in camp, probably get redshirted like most of the other freshmen,’’ Kuechly said. “I was just kind of thinking, ‘I’m going to work hard in practice and see where it put me.’

“I didn’t have any added pressure of preparing for the team. Then, once I got tossed in, I had to get a different mind-set going. Once I realized I was going to be playing, I had to turn on a different switch and get things going a little more.’’

Getting to know you
The Eagles didn’t necessarily know what they had. The fact that he’s so nondescript on and off the field didn’t help.

“He’s Clark Kent,’’ said Spaziani. “He really is.’’

His teammates weren’t exactly sure what to make of him, either.

“There was nothing stupendous or exceptional or out of the ordinary,’’ Davis said. “If you saw him walk across campus, you’d probably think the same thing. If somebody pointed out who the freshman All-American was, you’d probably go, ‘Oh, that’s him?’ ’’

At the very least, Spaziani knew he had a player he could mold.

“We had thought he was a good football player before,’’ Spaziani said. “We had watched him on tape, and from coaches I respect we heard we were getting ourselves a good football player.

“But little did we know he had the instincts and the field presence to be able to contribute early. There’s only usually a few that are ready mentally and maturity-wise and physically to play, and he was one of them.’’

There was a “wow’’ almost every practice, either because he made a play no one expected him to or because the plays he was missing the day before he was making the next day.

“He absorbs it and he gets better fast,’’ Spaziani said. “Very rarely does he make the same mistake twice.’’

In some ways, it was funny seeing the freshman with the boyish face in the middle of the defense barking out orders.

“Originally he was playing ‘Mike’ linebacker, and you know ‘Mike’ has to make all the calls,’’ Davis said. “It was just hilarious hearing an 18-year-old kid as opposed to Mike McLaughlin yelling - chirping - the signals as opposed to a 22-year-old 250-pound linebacker bellowing out the calls.’’

Veteran instincts, rookie mentality
Kuechly led the Eagles in tackles in 11 of their 12 games this year, finding the ball carrier 19 times against North Carolina. His tackle total is the most by a BC player since Stephen Boyd finished with 161 in 1993.

“It’s got a lot to do with luck,’’ Kuechly said. “If you end up in the right spot, you’re going to make the tackle. Obviously it helps to be in the right spot - where you’re supposed to be - more often than not. But every once in a while there’s that time where you get a little out of position, but you get lucky.’’

What Kuechly calls luck, Spaziani calls instinct.

“You understand what the offense is trying to do,’’ Spaziani said. “You understand where you’re supposed to be and then you just do it. If you make the block or miss, you go underneath a block, you go over the top of a block, you see a hole and you go through it, those are things that are just instinctive.’’

Throughout the season, Davis was one of the veterans constantly in Kuechly’s ear, going over film or telling him the right call when Kuechly’s brain froze.

Such things come at a cost.

“I have him take my bag for away games, and get candy for the flight,’’ Davis said. “I like peanut M&Ms and Sour Patches.’’

It’s standard treatment for rookies, but what Davis appreciates is that even with everything Kuechly has accomplished in such a short time, he still does it.

“He forgot to take my bag one week, and I said, ‘Aw Luke, you make 100 tackles, now you can’t take my bag?’ ’’ Davis said. “And he sincerely apologized for it. That’s the type of person he is.

“That’s the best part about him. He doesn’t act like some kid that has 150 tackles. He acts like any other freshman. He’s very humble about the way he goes about everything. I don’t even know if he knows how to celebrate.’’

Said Spaziani, “He’s respectful of his situation, being a young person on the team, and he understands that even though he’s producing, he’s still a rookie. He’s very understanding of the game and what you’ve got to pay to it.’’

Undoubtedly, the same way BC never saw Kuechly coming, opponents never do, either.

“I bet there are a lot of teams that come out looking for him that say, ‘Oh, that’s him?’ ’’ Davis said. “Until the fourth quarter comes and they realize why people are talking so much about him.’’

Kuechly doesn’t mind it at all. In a way, it’s his golden rule.

Everything has its place. He knows his.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.