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Kuechly's signature play


CHARLOTTE - As Fan Fest came to a close Saturday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers' most recent No. 1 draft pick jogged over to the stands, accompanied by a member of the security staff, and began signing autographs for appreciative fans.

Within a minute, the Panthers' 2011 No. 1 pick jogged over near the same spot to share his signature. A security officer followed him as well – along with a pack of young children that continually crisscrossed the field on his heels.

If linebacker Luke Kuechly keeps this up, he just might have the same kind of preschool paparazzi that trailed Cam Newton.

Saturday, Kuechly competed in the stadium that Newton made his own last season for just the second time.

For the second time, he made arguably the play of the day – this one at Newton's expense.

Having blanketed tight ends in pass coverage throughout training camp at Wofford College, Kuechly got the best of a wide receiver in coverage this time, snaring a bullet of a pass over the middle intended for Seyi Ajirotutu.

"They lined up in a two-by-two set, and that was my guy," Kuechly said. "Cam threw him a good ball, but I was able to get my hands on it and make a play."

In June, when the Panthers moved their final offseason practice to inside the stadium, Kuechly picked off a Jimmy Clausen pass and returned it for a touchdown as a playful Newton chased him from behind.

It looked like Kuechly's return to his new homefield might be cut short when he chased down running back Jonathan Stewart and was met with a surprise that bloodied his nose and sent him to the locker room.

"I was trying to get Stew, and it hit on one of those little back flaps," Kuechly said. "It popped up right when I hit him, and it went right through my facemask and hit me in the nose."

Kuechly got cleaned up in the training room and soon re-emerged from the tunnel, drawing a nice ovation from the crowd. He came back out wearing a helmet fitted with a plastic shield to protect his face, the first time he'd ever worn that piece of equipment.

The new equipment clearly didn't affect him, just as the blow to the nose did nothing to throw off his nose for the football.

"He was able to go back in, and you saw what kind of football player he is with a heck of a play," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He's really coming along and developing."

Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, helped re-invent the Panthers offense last season, leading a unit that had ranked last in the NFL in scoring and yardage the year before to top-seven showings in both categories.

While Kuechly, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 draft, isn't in quite the same position, he could be a key cog in rejuvenating a defense that ranked in the bottom six of both categories last season, a defense that's holding its own against Newton and the offense in the preseason.

"The hard thing for our defense when we go ones-against-ones is Chud (offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski) uses the entire playbook, so they're going to get everything," Rivera said. "It's not like when you play a team that you game plan and you know exactly what you're going to get.

"It's been tough on the guys, so we've had some mistakes in terms of reading our keys, but it's been very good as far as learning and growing as a defense."

After another successful practice for the defense, Kuechly saw it all during autograph time. At one point, a fan even handed him a basketball to sign.

"That was a new one," Kuechly said. "I was like, 'Huh?' "

Seconds later, he signed a Cam Newton jersey.

This time next year, Newton might just sign a Kuechly jersey or two.

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