CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - With the NFL draft behind us, lots of talk surrounds the young leaders of the Panthers. One being Defensive Player of the Year, Luke Kuechly.
Anchor Molly Grantham sat down with this 23-year-old NFL linebacker about to start his 3rd season with the Carolina Panthers. He was quick to shrug off notoriety, give credit to veteran players and told Molly what he hopes fans can expect in this upcoming season.
"I think we'll be hungry. We've got a taste of the playoffs and now that we've got that taste, we've got to capitalize on it," he said. "It starts with week one against Tampa and make our way down the road and get to the playoffs and get that taste in our mouth again."
"Can we expect to ADVANCE in the playoffs?" Molly asked.
"Yes," Luke said. "We can. That's our plan. That's our goal and that's what we're going to strive to do."
Picked as the Panthers #1 draft in 2012 (9th pick overall), Kuechly has been taking classes the past two years to make sure he graduates. He's almost done; two online classes shy of getting a marketing degree from Boston College. He hopes to finish up by the time the season starts.
"I'm doing it for my mom," he said. "I want to do it for myself, but I'm also doing it for her. My mom said if I leave early, she'd 'Like me to go back and finish'. It wasn't, 'You HAVE to go back and finish'. It was 'I'd LIKE you to.' That's more powerful because that means it's something important to her. If it's important to her, then it's also going to be important to me."
The unassuming superstar said he has a great relationship with Head Coach Ron Rivera, General Manager Dave Gettleman and really respects Owner Jerry Richardson.
"He [Jerry Richardson] is one of those guys who after you get to meet him a little bit, he jokes around with us. He has fun. You can tell how much he appreciates football and how much he wants us to be in the best situation we can. He knows something about all of us. Whether it's me going back to school, or Thomas going back to school or Thomas's injuries, or how Mr. Richardson helped Greg and little TJ, he seems to not just be in it for the money. He seems to be in it to help guys out."
How does Luke lead other players on the team, some more veteran than him?
"I just do my job to the best of my ability," he says. "I think if you come in each day, work hard, show guys you're dedicated and accountable and responsible for what your job is, then they'll follow you."
When asked about the decision to let Steve Smith go, Luke said it wasn't his job to worry whether that was right or wrong.
"Steve has done a great job since I've been here," he said. "I grew up watching him, so now I'll have an opportunity to play against him finally, instead of just watching him. A lot will be made of the game in Baltimore this season… people will say 'It's Steve versus the Panthers'… but when it comes to game time, it'll be Panthers versus the Ravens. That's what we're going to take it as."
As for draft picks, Luke says he's a fan of Kelvin Benjamin.
"He's a big, tall guy," he said. "I met him the other day. His arms and hands are huge, so anything in that radius he'll be able to grab and I think he'll be a good piece for us."
He also said he doesn't know what the big deal is surrounding Michael Sam – that it's not about your sexuality, it's about who you are as a person.
"I think the guys will treat him just like everyone else," he said. "If you're a good dude and you play well, or more importantly if you're a good dude overall, everyone's going to like you. I don't really think it matters which way you lean."
Luke says he likes Charlotte weather, the fact the city is easy to get around and when pressed, says he can see himself here for awhile. In his free time he likes to fish, golf, has been to the Carolina coast and hopes to soon visit the mountains. He reluctantly admits he's sometimes recognized out in public, but said it's never that big of a deal. He isn't looking for the limelight.
"I just want to do what I've always been doing," he said. "I want to be nice to people. Smile. Treat everyone the same. My mindset on everything is just be nice to everyone."