Luke Kuechly's dressing up his game
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- There's a picture of linebacker Luke Kuechly on the table of contents of the 2010 Boston College media guide. He is in uniform. His hands are above his head, elbows bent at 90-degree angles. His upper arms are streamlined, bulgeless. It is a picture of Kuechly as a 220-pound freshman linebacker in 2009.
"He truly looked like Clark Kent when he first came here," defensive coordinator Billy McGovern said.
All he did that season was set an NCAA freshman record with 158 tackles. As a sophomore in 2010, Kuechly led the nation with 183 stops, 20 more than any other FBS player. He made every All-American team except for Dick Vitale's.
Fast forward to three days ago. Kuechly stood coiled in the middle of the Boston College defense at practice, gloved hands resting lightly on knees. His torso and upper legs formed a less-than sign as he scanned the Eagles offense before him. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he is undersized no more.
"He has the half where he looks like an All-American in a uniform," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said, a sly smile playing across his face. The other half, in which Kuechly plays like an All-American, has been there pretty much from the day he set foot on campus.
Spaziani wonders aloud whether Kuechly is from Cincinnati, which is where Boston College found him, or Krypton. After I spoke with Kuechly on Tuesday, Spaziani's first question to me was, "Find a flaw?"
Well, let's see. The best linebacker in the nation puts in the time to be the backup long snapper. He gets his defensive teammates together to watch video. When he met with McGovern after the season, Kuechly told him he wanted to learn what every player on the defense is supposed to do in every scheme. "I want to know what you know," Kuechly said.
Older teammates have teased him because his language needs to get in the weight room. Kuechly doesn't lift any expletive stronger than "geez." Guys like Mark Herzlich, the 2008 All-American who missed the 2009 season while fighting cancer, and free safety Wes Davis would come back to the huddle during the 2010 season and in exaggerated tones say, "Golly gee, Luke, I missed that tackle."
Kuechly doesn't touch fried foods or carbonated drinks and doesn't eat candy. When he came back late to the locker room after Boston College's loss to USC in the Emerald Bowl two years ago, he apologized to McGovern.
"They made me stay out there, Coach," Kuechly said.
"He got the Defensive MVP," McGovern continued. "He was trying to hide the trophy, like I caught him with something."
If he lives his life this well and his teammates don't hate him, there must be a leader in there somewhere.
"I get frustrated with myself very easily," Kuechly said. "I think things I want to be good at, I really push myself. I'm not going to make my bed perfectly every time. As much as my mom would want me to make it perfectly every time, if I got to get somewhere, I'm not going to make sure that pillow is just right. My toothbrush doesn't have to be in the same place every time. I'm not OCD about that stuff. When it comes to football, I want to be right on everything."
It's hard to imagine that Boston College could need more from him. But his play is not enough. On a 2011 defense so young they interrupt meetings for nap time, the Eagles need Kuechly to be out front. They need him to point fingers and get in the faces of his peach-fuzzed teammates. It may be the first time since he stepped onto a football field in fourth grade that he has been asked to do something on the field that doesn't come naturally to him.
"Leading by example is something I've always tried to pride myself on," Kuechly said. "Being a little more vocal is something that I need to work on. Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort level to take that next step."
Spaziani is watching Kuechly this spring, looking for the signs.
"I don't know where he is with that, as far as leading guys," he said. "That's stuff that you have and grow into. We certainly need it. You lead by example a lot. There are a lot of other aspects to it, like personality. There are a lot of great players who don't get elected captain."
Janet Costa Bates thinks Kuechly has it in him. Bates, an associate director in career counseling and education at Boston College, got a phone call from Kuechly earlier this year. He wanted to know if he could set up a meeting with her on how to build a résumé. And could he bring a few of his classmates?
"I have never had a student call before and ask for a workshop for him and his friends," Bates said, "athlete or no."
A few days later, Bates called and asked Kuechly for a favor. Clinton Kelly, Boston College '91, and the co-host of TLC's "What Not to Wear," was coming to campus to hold a seminar on how to dress for an interview. Would Kuechly be a guinea pig?
"I was like, geez, she was the greatest lady ever," Kuechly said. "I'm going to have to do this for her, even though I didn't want to do it. I tried to keep it under wraps."
That didn't work. Kuechly heard about it from his teammates. He got an earful from Kelly, too.
"He said, 'Pleated pants are bad,'" Kuechly said of Kelly. "He also said, 'Make sure your socks match your pants,' stupid stuff like that."
Flat-front pants are the rage. Kuechly wears them every Saturday in the fall. He's filling out a uniform better than he ever has. The question for the Eagles is about his footwear. It's whether he can fill a leader's shoes.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.