About this series: Over the next two months, I'll be chatting weekly with Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly and chronicling his preparation for April's NFL draft. This is the first installment.
On Friday, January 6, Luke Kuechly announced from his hometown of Cincinnati that he would forgo his senior year at Boston College and enter the NFL draft.
Three days later, he was in front of a TV in Bradenton, Fla., watching the BCS title game and preparing for seven weeks of training, leading up to the combine in Indianapolis.
Kuechly, considered among the top inside linebacker prospects in the draft and a first-round prospect, called on other Boston College products like Mark Herzlich, Anthony Castonzo, Jamie Silva and Alex Albright when weighing his decision to turn pro.
"Everyone said, 'You’ve got to do what’s right for you,'" Kuechly said. "'You’ll know what the right decision is, what makes you happy.'"
And so he decided it was time to take the final steps in pursuing a dream that was rooted in his first days on the football field as a fourth grader.
The process has now moved to IMG Academy in Florida, where Kuechly and 29 other prospects like Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill spend their days training.
The techniques are different than what Kuechly was used to. At Boston College, training always carried with it a football focus, the idea being preparation leading to results on Saturdays.
But now, the focus is on the combine. Yes, there are football-specific drills. But the combine presents a specific set of predictable tests. With the right preparation, prospects will be ready for exactly what's thrown at them. From an athletic standpoint, that means Kuechly's working on his 40 time, plyometrics, stretching, footwork, making sure he maximizes his explosiveness.
From an off-the-field perspective, it means getting ready for the Wonderlic test and making sure he interviews well with coaches, general managers, scouts and personnel men.
Whichever team drafts Kuechly in April will do so based on the merits of his tape. For evaluators, tape is another word for production. Teams looking at Kuechly will see the nation's leading tackler in each of the past two seasons, averaging 15.92 tackles per game in 2011.
They'll see the winner of the Nagurski Award, given to the nation’s top defensive player. And the winner of the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker.
While Kuechly's production on the field has gotten him to this point, he realizes the combine is just part of the draft process.
"Size and speed," he answered, when asked what NFL teams are most likely to zero in on. "Those are the questions circling around. How big am I and how fast am I going to run."
The first question can already be answered. Kuechly said he's 6-2 and currently weighs around 241 or 242. He expects to be at 240 at the combine. The second question will be answered in Indy.
As for draft projections, ESPN's Mel Kiper has Kuechly rated as his top linebacker and 10th-best prospect, praising him for his instincts and his ability to shed blocks. He has the Eagles picking Kuechly at No. 15 in the first round, although a lot can change in terms of team needs with free agency in March.
ESPN's Todd McShay also has Kuechly as his top-rated linebacker and 10th-best prospect overall.
And NFL.com's Mike Mayock has Kuechly as his second-best linebacker, behind only Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, who projects as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Kuechly has seen and heard some of the scouting reports? But does he agree with them?
"A lot of them say I play instinctively," Kuechly said. "That’s true the more I think about it. I just let myself go out there and play."
And the weaknesses?
"I've got to do a better job in general of playing in coverage," he said. "I have a lot to work on. It's a faster game. You've got to adapt with what comes your way."
The success of tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis is not lost on Kuechly, who realizes the importance of playing in coverage, along with stopping the run.
When asked which linebacker he most admires, Kuechly didn't hesitate.
"My favorite player for awhile has been Ray Lewis," Kuechly said, explaining that he watched Lewis and the Ravens face his hometown Bengals growing up. "His passion for the game is the number one thing. He loves playing football, and that's helped him be great."
Lewis was the 26th pick in 1996. Kuechly figures to go higher, but with the draft still 12 weeks away, there are several steps to take before finding out where he'll begin his NFL career.