Panthers LB Luke Kuechly says he misses hitting people. How long before he can start?

Panthers LB Luke Kuechly says he misses hitting people. How long before he can start?
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, center, bumps fists with fans as he jogs to practice on Tuesday. (Credit: Reed Klass | The Charlotte Observer)
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, center, bumps fists with fans as he jogs to practice on Tuesday. (Credit: Reed Klass | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jourdan Rodrigue/CharlotteObserver) - It would be easy to imagine Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, earnest, amiable and sporting a fresh "back-to-school" haircut, whistling the theme song to "Leave it to Beaver" as he comes off the practice field.

But after Tuesday's first minicamp session, the tune was a little more like Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."

Kuechly, speaking to reporters for the first time in a football setting since his shoulder surgery this spring, let a little angst trickle through his sunny disposition. A little heartache, perhaps?

He just really misses playing football. For a four-time All-Pro, that's understandable.

"I just want to be out there, man," he said. "I'm not able to do the team-related stuff right now, which is a bummer. That's the best part of the (organized team activity) and minicamp portion."

Kuechly is far enough along in his rehabilitation after having his shoulder repaired in February to go through installations and individual drills, but the coaching staff can't risk accidental contact just yet.

Still, Kuechly has plenty to offer his teammates, including backup David Mayo, who has taken first-team snaps in team drills and Tuesday had a diving interception of quarterback Cam Newton.

Plays like that might make Kuechly even itchier to get back to work. But he has a few weeks before he expects to be cleared, so all he can do is offer advice, tackle air and hit dummies in drills.

"It's still good to be out here, around, talking to the guys," he said. "The early-on individual stuff is what I'm able to do right now, and then hopefully once training camp comes I'll be a full go."

A familiar recovery

Kuechly trusts his body's recovery, because he's been through this before: In 2016, he had labrum repair surgery on his left shoulder but was good to go by training camp.

"That's the plan," he said. "That's how it went last time and everything went well. I don't anticipate it being different."

Training camp is also when the pads go on, which is something the rest of the defense is looking forward to under new coordinator Eric Washington, who has brought a high level of energy to spring workouts.

"He's got great energy," Kuechly said. "He has commanded the room. I don't think there was much of a transition period of guys getting to know him because everybody who has been here respects him and knows how hard he works."

Still, some change

But the Panthers' linebackers, a group that is one of the more formidable in the NFL and has retained continuity in Kuechly and veteran Thomas Davis for six seasons, now feature a new face.

Former position coach Al Holcomb joined former defensive coordinator Steve Wilks' staff in Arizona, and was replaced by longtime Air Force assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Steve Russ.

"He's excited to be here and he's done a great job of teaching," said Kuechly. "He's worked his butt off and has learned this defense very quickly. He's brought a lot of good stuff from Air Force and has put in some good stuff that he likes."

Russ also has Kuechly as a second set of eyes and an adviser — for now.

But in six weeks, when training camp begins, heaven help whichever player faces the same old fear: a healthy Kuechly, in pads and cleared to hit someone.