SANTA CLARA, Calif. – On Sunday at Levi's Stadium, linebacker Luke Kuechly looked like a guy who hadn't played in a regular season game in a while.
He'll tell you his fatigue gave that away.
"I have to get back my stamina back up," Kuechly said with a smile after Carolina's 23-3 victory.
He'll also tell you he was sloppy at times, as he told linebackers coach Al Holcomb before exiting the postgame locker room.
But what really gave it away was the energy and enthusiasm. The smile. Spinning the ball and smacking his helmet after an interception to start the second half. Firing up teammates after a solid hit.
"I just missed playing football," Kuechly said. "You know, it had been a while. I was excited to be out there again. I was having fun."
Kuechly played in the preseason, but we all know there is a distinct difference between those games and regular season football, and Kuechly lives for that competitive intensity.
Last year, he was forced to watch the final six games of the regular season from the sideline as he recovered from a concussion. The defense wasn't the same without him, and that's especially true for the guys he plays with.
"I mean, it's Luke," safety Kurt Coleman said. "Who doesn't love playing with a guy like Luke?"
They all love playing with Kuechly because of who he is and the standard he's capable of setting for himself and the entire unit.
"Luke was back to being Luke today and I was excited to see him doing that," fellow linebacker Thomas Davis said. "The communication he has on the field and the things he's able to see and understand before they happen makes a world of difference for this defense. I think it showed today."
It certainly showed on the second play of the third quarter, when Kuechly read quarterback Brian Hoyer's intentions and picked off a pass over the middle for tight end George Kittle.
"I've seen that play a million times," Kuechly said of his interception that put Carolina firmly in control of the game.
Added head coach Ron Rivera: "(Luke) is one of those guys that's just got a great sense about the game. He fell back into the throwing lane."
Kuechly finished the game with seven tackles, tied with Davis for most on the team.
The Panthers finished with just three points allowed, a franchise record for fewest points given up in a season opener.
And it's only right that Kuechly was in the middle of it.
"This was big for us," he said. "But for as good as it was, there are a lot of areas to tighten up."
Yeah, he's back alright.
View the top photos from Panthers vs. 49ers by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.