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The best of both worlds

Eagles linebacker Kuechly is stellar on, off field

Luke Kuechly sheds a blocker at practice; he made 341 tackles during his first two seasons at BC. Luke Kuechly sheds a blocker at practice; he made 341 tackles during his first two seasons at BC. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / August 29, 2011

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There are superhero nicknames. There are assumptions of greatness, some already achieved and more predicted. And amid of all that, there is one person ever vigilant about keeping Luke Kuechly humble. His father, Tom, wants to make sure his son’s head is in the right place, that it doesn’t get too big. So he accuses Luke, the junior Boston College linebacker, of “JOP-ing’’ tackles.

The JOP? That stands for “jumping on piles.’’

“He always says I jump on piles at the end,’’ Luke Kuechly said, smiling. “He says they just feed me tackles sometimes if I just jump on the pile. He says, ‘Luke, you’re jumping on the pile again.’ I’m like, ‘Dad, I got there. They gave me one, so I’m going to take it. I’m going to take what I can get.’ ’’

Not that he needs any help.

And while Tom Kuechly doesn’t take credit for coining the term, giving kudos instead to the mother of former BC player Mike Morrissey, it’s an easy way for him to rib his son. After all, Luke’s tackle total for his first two years at BC (341 total) is nearly unbelievable, putting him on pace to best the school’s all-time record of 524, set by Stephen Boyd.

Unbelievable is, really, a good word for Kuechly. He’s got the glasses-and-muscles combination that gives rise to Clark Kent comparisons. He almost always gets home by his own curfew. He eschews soda and fried foods and swearing. As teammate Nick Clancy said, “He’s a class act. He’s the guy that you want to hire for a baby sitter for your kids. You can trust him with anything. He’s just a great guy, great person, good character, and I think that [translates] into how he plays.’’

Which is really, really well.

“You hate to say this, because he’s got two more years left, but if he continues along that same path, he certainly would have to be considered, if not the best, certainly in the top two or three [defensive players at BC], because there’s been some great players here, but they’ve not done it over four years,’’ said Barry Gallup, BC’s associate athletic director for football operations. “So the sky’s the limit for Luke.

“If he has another two years like he did his first two years, he’ll certainly probably be the best defensive player to ever play here.’’

Driven to succeed Kuechly was keeping score. He knew he had caught more fish than his two brothers, that he should win a competition that perhaps mattered only to him. So he retired to his grandparents’ house, where the family was visiting, and waited, watching his brothers continue to fish, making sure that they didn’t catch up to his total.

And when either of them caught another to draw closer, he’d get back out there, maintaining his lead.

“He just doesn’t give up,’’ Tom said. “That’s something you either have or you don’t have, I think. And he’s got that.’’

It’s that competitiveness that has gotten him here. And the instincts. And the studying. And the uncanny ability to be around the ball at all times. That is what has placed his name among the greats at BC already, even though Kuechly has potentially two years remaining at the school. Though there’s no guarantee that he’ll stick around for another year after this one.

But if he does?

“He’s got a chance to be as good as anybody I’ve been around,’’ defensive coordinator Bill McGovern said. “There’s no doubt about that. He has the physical traits, he has the mental capabilities, and he has the desire and the want-to. So it’ll be up to him as long as he keeps going.’’

The desire never has been an issue. His father instilled in him that there’s always someone better, someone working harder, a bit of motivation that has stayed with Luke. But it’s the physical part, the uncanny ability to be at the right spot in the right moment, that defines Kuechly as a linebacker.

“I think what separates him from the rest of the country is basically his instincts,’’ Clancy said of his 6-foot-3-inch, 237-pound teammate. “He prepares a lot for his games, but when it comes down to it, I think him just being a natural football player, a natural linebacker, is what makes him such a good player. That’s just kind of the X factor that makes him the leading tackler in the nation [with 183 in 2010] - his instincts, his preparation, basically just his motor. He’s always running full speed at the ball. It makes him a great linebacker.’’

It’s also what has led teammates and coaches to the nicknames. The Human Eraser. Boy Wonder.

“The way he prepares, he’s into it every time,’’ McGovern said. “Very rarely have I seen him ever have an off day or an off hour. He’s into it, he’s looking to get better. He’s a gentleman off the field, but on the field he’s just what you would want out of a football player. He’s got a competitive streak in him, he’s got a little edge to him, he’s a little irritable.’’

In talking to him that part is hidden, covered by the unassuming Midwestern persona, by the friendliness of a player who seemingly would like nothing more than to blend in with the student population. That’s hard, though, for someone who is perhaps one of the program’s best all-time players - even if former sports information director Reid Oslin does say he “looks like a philosophy graduate student.’’

“He wants to be the best,’’ McGovern said. “He’s a great example for a program because he’s an excellent student, does everything right. He’s the poster child for any university, any program. He hits on all the dots.’’

‘Football is a lifestyle’ Kuechly’s competitiveness started early, but so did his love of football. As a kid growing up in Cincinnati, Kuechly would command the television on Saturdays, starting at noon with the first college football games and lasting until the last snap of the day. He would sit on the couch, even as his mother exhorted him to other activities, watching up to four games at once, flipping back and forth as commercials interrupted the purity of his football.

He has, as he said, always loved the game. But it is more than that now.

“I think football is a lifestyle more than anything,’’ Kuechly said. “It’s how you eat, it’s how you sleep, it’s how you conduct yourself. It’s just everything you do you have to keep in mind, is this going to help or have a positive impact on how my practice is going to be, how my workout is going to be, how the game is going to be. If you [can] go out or get a night’s sleep a couple of days prior to a game, you’ve got to get the sleep because that’s going to impact you more in a positive way.

“Like I said, it’s a lifestyle. It’s what you are, it’s who you are, how you act, what you do, kind of everything.’’

And that’s how he’s treated football as long as he can remember. It prepared him when he was thrown into the starting lineup because of injuries as a freshman. It helped him improve on that stellar campaign as a sophomore, when he earned Associated Press first-team All-America honors, along with being runner-up for the Butkus Award and finalist for the Nagurski Award. He’ll be in the running for more honors this season.

“He’s obviously been pretty unique in the first two years and it’s been pretty remarkable how well he’s played in those first two years,’’ said McGovern. “But also there’s things that he can get better at. The thing about Luke that you realize is he will do everything he can to be as good as he can be. There won’t be a stone left unturned.’’

It is what has pushed him to the point that - no matter how much he tries to downplay it - Kuechly is on the cusp of a career of historic significance at BC, one that Oslin said will compare favorably with former BC and NFL linebackers Bill Romanowski and Steve DeOssie.

Not that Kuechly will acknowledge that, at least publicly.

“I’ve only been here two seasons so I don’t really think I have a spot yet,’’ Kuechly said. “I haven’t even won a bowl game yet. I think until we win a big bowl game or do something like that, I’m just a guy who came and played at BC.’’

Just a guy? Even if Kuechly never would admit it, he’s hardly just another player at BC.

“I put those three guys together in my estimation, Kuechly and Romanowski and DeOssie, the three best I’ve ever seen,’’ Oslin said. “And that’s a lot of games, that’s a lot of linebackers.

“He’s there. And I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time he finishes I don’t put him alongside those other two, that he may be No. 1 all by himself. That’s how good he is.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.