SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly isn't satisfied.
Kuechly became the first rookie since San Francisco's Patrick Willis in 2007 to lead the NFL in tackles last season and was selected AP Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording 164 tackles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
Kuechly downplayed those numbers, saying the focus is on getting better.
"If I can improve on my pass coverage I'd be real happy with that," Kuechly said.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Kuechly is light years ahead of most young linebackers in the league and thinks he's destined for greatness.
"He's developing into one of the best middle linebackers in the league," Rivera said.
Rivera has learned two things about Kuechly — he's best when he plays middle linebacker and leave him alone.
Kuechly, who twice led the nation in tackles at Boston College, moved to middle linebacker five weeks into the 2012 season after Jon Beason went down with a season-ending injury.
Carolina's defense took off from there.
The Panthers went from 24th in the league in defense in Week 5 to 10th by the end of the season. During that span Kuechly averaged 14.4 tackles per game.
"Luke is exactly where Luke belongs — and that's in the middle of our defense," Rivera said. "We're not going to do anything with him. We're going to let him play football and hopefully we're not going to over-coach him."
When asked if he wished he'd simply started Kuechly instead of the three-time Pro Bowler Beason, Rivera smiled and said, "Hindsight is the 20-20, and that's all I'm going to say on that."
Kuechly is seeing just fine.
He said he's much more comfortable than he was a year ago.
"I have had a year in the defense, two sets of OTAs, so you're more familiar with what is going on. So that only helps your comfort level," Kuechly said.
If Cam Newton is the player the Panthers are building around on offense, then Kuechly is the guy they're constructing the defense around.
Carolina added defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with its first two draft picks, a pair of 310-pound space eaters who expected to eat up double teams and allow Kuechly to roam untouched and make even more plays.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott raved about Kuechly's work ethic, leadership and football IQ.
"The greatest thing about Luke is he understands he's only one part of the defense," McDermott said. "He's got to do his job within the defense and everything will work out."
That's a lesson that didn't take Kuechly long to learn.
In last year's season opener against Tampa Bay, Kuechly tried to play too aggressive and got caught out of position on a few plays and the Bucs burned him on bootlegs.
"As the season progressed I realized 'Hey, there is a guy here and a guy here and if I sit in the middle and do my job, everyone else is covered,'" Kuechly said. "So it's one of those things where once you understand the defense and where everybody else needs to be, you start trusting guys and everything works out."
The result was Kuechly setting a Panthers single-season record for tackles.
The success even surprised Kuechly.
"My mindset was to come in and work hard and learn as much as I could and play as hard as I could wherever they had me," said the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Kuechly.
This year, he has set his goals a little higher.
"I think it would be cool to go to the Pro Bowl," Kuechly said. "But at the end of the day you want to win games. If you do that, all of the individual awards will come."
Online: AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org
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