|Preparation, vision and instincts are the keys to Luke Kuechly's game. (US Presswire)|
Teams travel to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this week for the scouting combine. There, they'll record massive amounts of data to help confirm the players they've identified as the best available in the 2012 draft.
The numbers and statistical analysis generated from the weeklong combine border on information overload, especially in the case of a player like Boston College's Luke Kuechly.
For Kuechly (pronounced KEEK-ly), only one number should matter to scouts: 532.
The 532 career tackles Kuechly recorded at Boston College is the second-highest career total -- collected in only three seasons -- registered since the NCAA began keeping track of the statistic in 2000. Former Northwestern standout Tim McGarigle recorded two more over his career but did it starting four years.
Kuechly left Boston College after his junior season, leading the country in total and solo tackles in each of his final two seasons after finishing second in both categories as an 18-year old true freshman in 2009.
NFL scouts gush about his production and intangibles.
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"He might be the safest player in the draft, to be honest with you," one high-level scout said. "You look at his stats and you think there is no way that he can be in on that many tackles but when you watch the tape, he is. Just an incredibly instinctive player who is always around the action. I'm not so sure he's going to test well or fits in every scheme, but he's a hell of a player who can be the quarterback of your defense for the next 10 years because of his leadership and preparation."
The mild-mannered, bespectacled Kuechly doesn't look the part of a glass-eating, intimidating NFL middle linebacker. He's polite, articulate and eager to credit his teammates and the Boston College coaching staff for his success. But Clark Kent turns to Superman once he gets on the field.
When Kuechly signed on with Boston College as a relatively unheralded recruit out of Cincinnati, he did so anticipating that playing time might be tough to come by. The Eagles were led by star linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was coming off of a 2008 season in which he was a finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation's best at the position.
But Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in May. With its star sidelined, Boston College needed a new someone to save the day. Kuechly rose to the challenge, finishing second in the entire country with 158 total tackles -- the most from a Boston College defender since 1993 -- and earning the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year as well as first-team all-conference.
Kuechly was even better as a sophomore (183 tackles) and junior (191), leading the country in total and solo tackles each year while earning consensus All-American honors. For all of the attention heaped upon quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, it was Kuechly who proved the big winner at the college football awards show following the 2011 season. Kuechly won the Butkus Award, as well as the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Rotary Lombardi Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy and was named the ACC's Player of the Year despite Boston College finishing a disappointing 4-8.
His coach, Frank Spaziani, actively campaigned for his middle linebacker to get Heisman consideration.
"I forget what the Heisman is [for]. ..." Spaziani said. "I think it's the best football player in the country. I don't think it's offense or defense. I don't think it's who's the best NFL prospect. I don't think it's the most valuable player in the country. I think that's what it says: the best college football player.
"And I can't imagine anybody being better at their position than Luke is. There's a lot of great players out there, it's not to disparage any of them. But he's a great football player."
Of course, Kuechly's coach is supposed to be supportive of his star. But the acknowledgement didn't just come from BC coaches.
"[Kuechly] is very instinctive like most linebackers," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said when previewing his team's upcoming matchup against BC this past season. "I always say this: running backs and linebackers are very easy to recruit. When you hand them the ball and watch them, and you have to tell him where to run and what's going on, he's not a running back. If he's a linebacker and he's standing around the pile, he's not a linebacker. If he's at the bottom of the pile, he's a linebacker.
"He understands his keys, he trains his eyes, he's very disciplined. Plays the run, plays the pass. He understands what's going on his defense ... productive. Just very productive."
Kuechly has a simple answer as to why he has been so productive.
"I'm an instinctive linebacker," Kuechly said. "I watch a lot of film during the week. I break it up into a lot of categories based on offensive formations, offensive personnel packages, down and distance. I pay attention to where the ball is going after a player shifts and things of that nature. Obviously there are some adjustments that have to be made throughout the game but most times when [opponents] line up, I've already seen it before and have an idea where they might be trying to attack."
Kuechly's preparation puts him in position to make the play. It's the few occasions when he doesn't make the tackle that stand out to him more than the ones he makes.
"I'm proud of the way I played throughout my career, but I guess it is just me that I focus more on the tackles I don't make than the ones I do, honestly," Kuechly said. "Those resonate with me. I remember the offense they ran and the defense we ran and exactly what happened so that next time I won't miss.
"The first game of the year against Northwestern. I remember they were on the 3-yard line near the student section. They ran the ball on a quarterback option to our left. The quarterback, Kain Colter, is a great athlete who made a great move by faking outside and cutting back in and breaking my tackle to score a touchdown. We ended up losing the season opener by seven points, so that one sticks in my mind."
Kuechly's production is undeniably impressive. He knows the 532 career tackles are enough to catch the attention of pro scouts. But his gaudy statistics and full trophy closet won't mean a thing at the combine, so he's working to improve two other numbers scouts will be paying attention to in Indianapolis.
Kuechly is 6-feet-3 and entered last season at 237 pounds, but that dipped to 234 during the course of the season. He hopes to weigh in at 240 or more in Indianapolis to ease concerns about his relatively narrow frame, which makes him ideally suited to staying inside in the 4-3 at the NFL level.
Kuechly is often able to beat blockers to the action and doesn't have the experience taking on and shedding blocks with the consistency he might need to star early for a 3-4 scheme.
"I'm confident in the 4-3," Kuechly said. "I've played both the Mike and Will and feel comfortable at either. I have not played in the 3-4 so obviously it is not going to be the most comfortable for me right off the bat, but I can learn the position. I feel like my cognitive ability is one of my strengths. I played DB as a junior in high school and obviously made the transition to linebacker in college, so I've proven I can adjust."
Rob Rang is NFLDraftScout.com senior draft analyst.