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Emerging From the Shadows

In 2008, the tightest division in college football was the ACC Atlantic. All six teams finished either 5-3 or 4-4. Boston College started 2-3 in conference play, but won the division after winning at Florida State, at Wake Forest, and against Maryland in the last three weeks of the regular season. The Eagles were not a very talented team; this was the year after Matt Ryan left for the draft, and the offense underwhelmed in his absence. As you can probably guess, it was the team’s defense that guided them to the ACC Championship Game:

Boston College did not have good quarterback play, but made up for decreased offensive production with a top-notch defense, whose three shutouts tied U.S.C. for the most in the F.B.S. All told, the 2008 B.C. defense ranked among the best in program history, ranking in the top 10 nationally in total defense (fifth), rush defense (seventh), pass efficiency (seventh), first downs allowed (sixth) and interceptions (first). It carried the team through the travails of an often average offense.

And there was no question who was the star of the 2008 Eagles defense: junior linebacker Mark Herzlich. After such a dominant season, he could have declared for the draft and been a first round pick; instead, Herzlich chose to return for his senior season. Then, tragedy stuck in mid-May: Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a malignant tumor usually discovered in bone or soft tissue. Here was Matt Hinton’s article after hearing the news:

Even for relatively diehard fans, it might have been possible to get through the last couple seasons knowing Mark Herzlich only as “the guy with the crazy facepaint,” but that would be missing the lead: The 6’4″, 240-pound Boston College linebacker was the defensive player of the year in a conference that had six defenders picked in the first two rounds1 of this year’s draft, and might have joined teammate B.J. Raji in the top-10 if he hadn’t decided to come back for his senior season at B.C.

And here was how Paul Myerberg described Herzlich in the summer of 2009:

His accolades are numerous: 2008 A.C.C. defensive player of the year, Butkus Award finalist, first-team all-A.C.C. and third-team all-American; these awards come as a result of his team-leading 110 tackles (13 for loss), 3 sacks, 6 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. As great an all-around linebacker as you’ll find on the F.B.S. level, Herzlich will be sorely missed on the field and in the locker room.

HerzlichHerzlich fought the disease in admirable fashion and is now in the NFL. He just lost a heated battle with Dan Connor for the starting middle linebacker job with the Giants, but Herzlich made the roster, and more importantly, has been cancer-free for nearly four years.

But that’s only the beginning of the story. Because even without their leader, Boston College managed to once again field one of the best linebackers in college football in 2009. The second-leading tackler on the ’08 Eagles was middle linebacker Mike McLaughlin (Herzlich played the strong side); he was supposed to take Herzlich’s spot as the team’s physical and emotional leader, but McLaughlin tore his Achilles in spring practice in 2009, the precursor to an underwhelming senior season. The backup middle linebacker was Will Thompson, with junior Darius Bagan serving as third string.

A shoulder injury kept Thompson out of the opener against Northeastern, while McLaughlin was still sidelined with his Achilles injury. By that time, a true freshman had beaten out Bagan for the starting middle linebacker job. That player would record a team-high seven tackles, but let’s put that in context: Northeastern is an FCS school, a cupcake opponent that is scheduled so Boston College can effectively get in a scrimmage and start the year 1-0. You could imagine some overeager bloggers or fans on message boards posting that the new linebacker was about to become the next great player in college football. But you wouldn’t expect the Boston Globe to write that article. But that’s exactly what Mark Blaudschun did in the second week of September, 2009:

The best part of summer training camp was not the practices – although he was absorbing as much as he could as quickly as he could. The best part was at night, breaking down game tapes, sitting next to defensive captain Mike McLaughlin.

Or like last Thursday night, two days before 18-year-old Luke Kuechly would make his college debut as Boston College’s starting middle linebacker against Northeastern. He listened as linebacker Mark Herzlich, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year last season, broke down tapes and told him what to expect in certain situations.

The kid hadn’t even been to his first college class yet, but he was taking notes.

“He’s a good kid,” said BC defensive coordinator Billy McGovern, who was forced to speed up the learning process when both McLaughlin (torn Achilles’ tendon) and Herzlich (cancer) were sidelined. “He’s bright-eyed and fun to work with. He’s really worked hard to understand the position. He’s got good natural skills. He’s been a pleasant surprise.”

McLaughlin, who returned to practice just this week in what has been a long, slow recovery, was surprised at how easily Kuechly picked things up.

“In all the time I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anyone pick up and understand our defensive schemes quicker than Luke did,” said McLaughlin.

Kuechly’s learning curve obviously extended to last week’s game: He led the Eagles with seven tackles and was an immediate presence on a team still searching for its identity.

“It’s been pretty fun,” said Kuechly, who came to BC in what has become a nice pipeline from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. “When I first got here, I looked at the depth chart and thought I was going to redshirt, but some guys got banged up and I was kind of thrown into the fire.”

At St. Xavier, Kuechly was a midsized kid who wasn’t pegged into any position. He played outside linebacker as a junior and safety as a senior. “Some schools saw him as a safety and couldn’t project him there because he wasn’t quite fast enough, and some schools didn’t think he was big enough to play linebacker,” said BC coach Frank Spaziani. “What we saw was a smart kid who didn’t fit one mold but might fit into another. The classic BC recruit in a lot of ways.”

Spaziani would have liked the luxury of redshirting Kuechly, letting him absorb the defense gradually, spend a year in the weight room, and emerge next season as a Robo-linebacker in the mold of Herzlich or McLaughlin.

“You can see him easily adding 20 pounds,” said Spaziani.

McGovern, who will try to mix and match linebackers as they get healthy (sophomore Will Thompson is also out of action because of a shoulder injury), regrets not being able to allow Kuechly to grow into the job.

“The ideal thing would have been to redshirt him,” said McGovern, “and in another year, he would have been bigger and stronger.”

By now, you can figure out the rest of the story: Kuechly didn’t need to redshirt for a year. He stepped in and finished 2nd nationally (and first among BCS players) in tackles. He had the most tackles per game of any rookie since college football began tracking that statistic in 2003. On January 20, 2010, Matt Hinton placed Kuechly in his top five breakout players of the 2009 season.2

5. Luke Kuechly, Boston College. Kuechly was thrown into the fire at linebacker when All-American Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with cancer before the season, and grew up fast: As a true freshman, the former high school safety finished second nationally in total tackles, racked up a team-high 13 tackles for loss and landed as a first-team All-ACC pick by a bunch of writers who couldn’t have picked his name or face out of a lineup three months earlier. Kueckly had at least a dozen tackles in eight different games and even returned an interception for a touchdown against Central Michigan, Herzlich-like, for good measure.

In 2010, Herzlich returned, but that didn’t deflate Kuechly’s numbers. Instead, the true sophomore recorded an astounding 183 tackles as a sophomore, the second-highest total of any player in a single season over the last decade of college football. Kuechly was a consensus All-American in 2010…. and followed that up with an even better junior season.

In 2011, he set a modern record with 191 tackles, was again a consensus All-American, and took home the Butkus Award (best linebacker), the Lott Trophy (given to the defensive IMPACT3 player of the year), the Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker), and the  Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player).

KuechlyAfter three outstanding seasons in Chestnut Hill, Kuechly declared for the pros, and was selected by the Panthers with the 9th pick in the 2012 draft. Kuechly led the NFL in tackles last year, becoming the first rookie since Patrick Willis to achieve that feat. Kuechly also become the third youngest player (behind Shawne Merriman and Terrell Suggs) to ever win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

This year, Kuechly may reach even greater heights. If they stay healthy, Thomas Davis, Kuechly, and Jon Beason are an elite trio of linebackers. In 2012, defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson combined for 23.5 sacks, and both seem poised for big years again in 2013. The big hole in the Panthers front seven last season was right up the middle. Fortunately for Carolina, big-bodied Star Lotulelei fell in the draft, and the Panthers selected him with the 14th pick. Carolina doubled up on the position by drafting Kawann Short in the second round, and both players have had strong preseasons. On paper, this is as strong a front seven as any in the league, featuring four former first round picks and a pair of double-digit sack artists.

It bears repeating that Kuechly led the league in tackles despite playing behind below-average defensive tackles. If Lotulelei can have the type of impact in 2013 that he did at Utah, the sky is the limit for Kuechly, the Panthers front seven, and the team as a whole. Kuechly won’t ever steal the spotlight from Cam Newton, but expect to hear Kuechly’s name a lot this year.

Still, no matter how great he becomes, I’ll always first remember Kuechly as the come-out-of-nowhere true freshman who emerged out of the worst possible circumstances at Boston College.

  1. The list: Raji, Aaron Curry, Alphonso Smith, Ron Brace, Clint Sintim, and Everette Brown. []
  2. Hinton’s other breakout players: #4 – Jared Crick; #3a – LaMichael James; 3b – Ryan Williams; #2 – Jason Pierre-Paul; #1 – Dion Lewis. []
  3. Yes, that’s an acronym for: Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, and Tenacity. []
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