BALTIMORE – To hear Luke Kuechly tell it, he just put on a helmet Thursday night, jogged onto the field and simply made plays that were set up by others.
Anyone in his shoes would have done the same thing.
The thing is, as Kuechly breaks in his shoes, they're quickly becoming too big for most of his contemporaries to fill.
Yet Kuechly isn't becoming too big for his britches.
"He's a very humble young man, so I'll just do it for him and tell you that he has the opportunity to ascend," head coach Ron Rivera said after Kuechly played a memorable quarter of football in the Panthers' 34-27 preseason victory over the Baltimore Ravens. "If he continues to grow, we most certainly will talk about him in the same vein as some of those great linebackers."
The name of Ray Lewis, who made a Hall of Fame name for himself at Thursday's venue, was mentioned, as was Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher. Both retired after the 2012 season, Kuechly's first in the NFL.
As a rookie, Kuechly led the NFL in tackles. Thursday, he led the defense to a three-touchdown performance.
Of course, that's not quite his version of events.
"We started a little slow, but Ted Ginn's return really sparked us," Kuechly said. "That really got us going, and the D-line played well again and got some pressure on the quarterback. We were able to get some picks and turnovers because they were pressuring the guys up front."
That's all true. Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei played like Kuechly did last year, and linebacker Thomas Davis and cornerback Drayton Florence were the ones joyously holding up the ball in the end zone following second-quarter touchdowns.
But they know the role Kuechly played in their shining moments.
"This is his defense," Florence said.
On the Ravens' first drive of the second quarter, with the score tied courtesy of Ginn's 74-yard punt return, Kuechly did something he was rarely asked to do as a rookie but that he did like a seasoned vet. He blitzed in a third-down passing situation, and the pressure exerted by him and fellow blitzer Captain Munnerlyn hurried quarterback Joe Flacco, whose pass resulted in a Florence interception and 71-yard touchdown return.
"Luke is a beast out there on the field," Florence said. "As he gets more comfortable, he's going to be making a lot more plays for us."It's a scary thought for future opponents as well as a truth within the context of Thursday's game because Kuechly was far from done. On the second snap of Baltimore's ensuing possession, Kuechly ripped through a gap created by the defensive line and walloped Ravens running back Bernard Pierce before he knew what hit him, forcing a fumble that Davis corralled at the 2 before wriggling his way across the goal line.
"The kid is amazing," Davis said. "He set us up tonight – he set me up for a touchdown and he set Godfrey up for a pick."
Yes, there was more to come. On Baltimore's next drive, the Ravens put something together before Kuechly tore it apart – twice. First, his perfectly timed hit on rookie receiver Aaron Mellette jarred the ball loose for a Charles Godfrey interception, only to have a bizarre personal foul call on Kuechly nullify it. It was a tough judgment call in the current safety-first era, but it had to be tough to take for Kuechly after officials waived off the flag but then changed course and accessed it just as the crowd booed a replay on the big screen.
"I turned around and he was right there, and I went to hit him," Kuechly said. "I didn't really get a chance to watch the replay."
No matter. Two plays later, Kuechly picked off a pass himself.
"For him to not get the favor of the call…and come back and get an interception, that's just a testament to who Luke is," quarterback Cam Newton said. "That's just Luke being Luke. We've all been wowed by his capabilities, and he's just tipping the iceberg."
Phrased a different way, it's just the tip of the iceberg for Kuechly.
Then again, maybe he can tip an iceberg.
"He's Clark Kent," Lotulelei said. "It's a privilege to play with him."