|Published:||May 12, 2012 12:44 AM EDT|
|Updated:||May 12, 2012 6:31 AM EDT|
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - First-round draft pick Luke Kuechly has a new number and, at least for now, a new position with the Carolina Panthers.
Before his first NFL practice, Kuechly was given No. 59 - the same number his new coach Ron Rivera wore during his nine seasons with the Chicago Bears - and told he'll start out playing weak side linebacker. That's a change from the middle linebacker spot he primarily played at Boston College where he wore No. 40 and led the nation in tackles the last two seasons.
For now, the Panthers plan to keep three-time Pro Bowl selection Jon Beason at middle linebacker - although things could change before the start of the season.
Beason is hoping to return from a torn Achilles last season.
"We'll start out with (Kuechly) on the outside and Jon will be on the inside," Rivera said. "I've talked with Jon about playing inside and outside. It will be an interesting experiment as we go through this. Quite frankly we want to make sure we put the best combination of players on the football field."
The Panthers already have a tremendous talent in in former first-round draft pick Thomas Davis at weakside linebacker, but he's been unable to stay healthy. He's torn his right ACL three times in the past three years.
Even though the Panthers re-signed Davis to a league-minimum contract this offseason there are no guarantees the knee will hold up.
Kuechly could be his replacement.
Regardless of where he ends up, there's little doubt the Panthers have big plans for the two-time All-American.
He's shown he can play at a high level, averaging an NCAA-record 15.9 tackles per game last season en route to winning the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation's top defensive player and the Butkus Award as the country's top linebacker.
Despite those accolades and being selected ninth overall pick in the draft by the Panthers, Kuechly comes to the Panthers a humble kid. He said he's more than eager to learn from veterans like Beason, Davis and starting strong side linebacker James Anderson.
Kuechly considers himself no different than any of the undrafted rookies or 32 players who are here at rookie minicamp on three-day tryouts.
"You have to come in with the mindset that you're at the bottom of the totem pole now," he said. "There will be guys that have been here 10 or 15 years and you have to gain their respect. You can't come in thinking that you've arrived because you haven't done anything yet.
"You have to prove what you can do."
The Panthers have already seen the proof on tape - and they're sold.
That's why they took less than two minutes to call Kuechly's name on draft night even though they may have had more pressing needs at defensive end and cornerback.
"He's just a solid, smart, instinctive football player," general manager Marty Hurney said.
The Panthers put Kuechly's football intelligence to the test during his first day on the practice field, working him both at weak side and middle linebacker.
Rivera said he handled it well, just as he expected.
"He looked good," Rivera said. "We put some pressure on him to learn both positions, but we think he's that kind of football player and that kind of athlete that can handle it. It will be interesting to see how he meshes with the rest of the guys on defense."
The biggest adjustment for Kuechly on Friday - outside of getting used to wearing an NFL required black facemask shield instead of a red one like he wore at Boston College - was adjusting to the speed of the game. That will only get tougher once the veteran players like Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith join practice at OTAs later this month.
Friday's practice was made up solely of rookies and first-year players without an accrued NFL season.
In the meantime, Kuechly will continue to practice the only way he knows how -- as hard as he can.
"You have to come in and make an impact," Kuechly said. "I'm excited and I want to play. If you don't say you want to play then I think there is something wrong with you. So I want to come in and play and have a good season."
As for his jersey, Kuechly said he didn't request one from the equipment staff.
He was simply given one.
"I was like, 'Great, I got a jersey. I'm not picky,'" he said.
Rivera laughed when asked if Kuechly will have a hard time living up to his reputation as a player.
"There's no legacy for him to worry about there, so he'll be fine," Rivera said.