About this series: Leading up to April's NFL draft, I'll be chatting regularly with Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. This is the third installment. Click here for the first part. And here for the second part.
Luke Kuechly’s first run could not have gone any better.
The Boston College linebacker waited his turn last Monday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, got in his stance on the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium and took off, running a 4.58 40-yard dash and matching the best time he had posted during training.
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock had said previously that Kuechly needed to run a 4.7 or better. Anything slower than that would lead to doubts about his speed and athleticism.
So when Kuechly set up for his second run and clocked in at 4.78, the questions he answered the first time around resurfaced – for a few minutes, at least.
"On the first one, I ran real well. Everything went smoothly," Kuechly said. "On the second one, I didn’t have a good start and slipped coming out. The footing’s not that good at that point since a bunch of guys have already been through it."
Because of the discrepancy, scouts asked Kuechly to run a third time. And he took advantage, running a 4.59.
Three days earlier, Kuechly woke up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight and take part in the NFL's annual job fair for college prospects. While the workout portion of the combine is televised, the interviews and medical checks are a major part of the process. Kuechly, who measured in at 6-3, 242, estimates he talked to 18 to 20 teams, including the Eagles.
"They were pretty much all the same," he said of the interviews. "They want to know a little bit about your family, where you grew up, what you did in high school. Then you watch film and they ask some football questions."
"Most of it was pretty straightforward. There were no questions I didn't have an answer for."
The interviews, which took place Saturday and Sunday nights, lasted 15 minutes each.
Kuechly said Andy Reid, Juan Castillo and linebackers coach Mike Caldwell were in the room when he met with the Eagles, an interview that was especially straightforward.
"It was pretty much 'Tell me a little bit about yourself. Let's watch some tape,'" he said.
As for the football-related questions, Kuechly said coaches would show him a play - either on tape or on the board - and ask him what the responsibilities were of specific defenders. Kuechly, who prided himself on watching a lot of film at BC, felt comfortable providing answers. His preparation in the weeks prior included practice interviews and training.
"One of the focal points with Luke was getting him to try and open up," said Chris Weinke, who directs IMG's football-related activities. "He's very humble and always so focused on his job that he doesn't feel comfortable talking about himself. But teams want to get to know him as a person."
The media wanted to get to know Kuechly too. He was scheduled to meet with reporters on Saturday, but that got pushed back because his medical checks took about six hours.
"It was a lot of hurry-up and wait," he said. "I was in eight or nine rooms with different teams. They're pulling, prodding on my joints, making sure everything's working how it should be. They put you on a table and pretty much check every inch of your body."
In the end, Kuechly, who didn't miss a game in three college seasons, said everything checked out fine.
As the nation's leading tackler in 2011, Kuechly won the Butkus Award, given to college's top linebacker and the Nagurski Award, given to the top defensive player. At the combine, he seemed to have answered any questions that remained about his overall athleticism.
But he didn't really deem his performance worthy of celebration.
"I was happy, I was tired, just ready to get home," he said nonchalantly.
Draft analysts, however, seem to be in agreement that Kuechly had an outstanding four days in Indy.
"I had him at No. 12 in my latest mock, already high praise for an interior linebacker," wrote ESPN’s Mel Kiper, listing Kuechly among his combine winners. "Question was his size, but Kuechly came in at 242, and didn't lose a step, and in fact, probably surprised people with how athletic he is. Good story, great player. Safe mid- to high-first grade."
Wes Bunting of the National Football Post listed Kuechly among his combine risers:
"The BC standout had some questions coming in concerning his straight-line speed. However, he ran anywhere in the 4.5-4.6 range and posted an explosive 38-inch vertical. He looked coordinated during positional drills and overall looks like the safest prospect on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL draft."
And Mayock had high praise for Kuechly during the NFL Network broadcast.
"I think Kuechly's game fits into the NFL because of what it is today," he said. "And I said earlier, if you're talking about a zone-drop linebacker with instincts and feel, he's the best I've ever seen as a zone drop guy."
While teams targeting Kuechly will want a linebacker who can stop the run, they'll also want to make sure he's a three-down player, capable of excelling in coverage.
"You can look back 10 years ago, and they weren’t doing all these exotic things on defense," Weinke said. "Playing one down lineman with a hand on the ground, asking linebackers to do different things from a rush standpoint and a coverage standpoint. That position is almost a hybrid position now."
Kuechly said Boston College played a lot of zone, and while he considers Mayock's praise a "great compliment" he knows he still has room to improve.
"The biggest thing is just to see the quarterback and see where he's looking, so you can jump routes and kind of be in windows," he said.
The offseason calendar has a specific rhythm for college prospects. With the combine in his rear-view mirror, Kuechly's headed back to Florida to train after having spent a few days at home in Cincinnati.
His Pro Day is March 21, and Kuechly will have his share of team visits.
It's been roughly two months since he announced he'd skip his senior year at Boston College and enter the draft. The process will continue, but so far, Kuechly's done all he can to position himself as the top inside linebacker on the board.