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December 22, 2009

Kuechly helps soften blow of Herzlich loss

Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly was just another nervous freshman preparing for his college debut when an older and more celebrated teammate approached him with an offer.

Mark Herzlich, the 2008 ACC defensive player of the year while leading Boston College to the Atlantic Division championship, wouldn't get a chance to defend his title. Herzlich didn't play all season as he recovered from Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. But the heart and soul of Boston College's 2008 defense didn't want to see the Eagles suffer without him, so he planned to help the team any way he could. When he saw Kuechly in the days leading up to the Eagles' season opener, Herzlich gave him some advice on breaking down film.

"It was really influential," Kuechly said. "He showed me how to watch film. Even though I watched it in high school, it's totally different now. You have to be more meticulous about how you go about things. He took time out of his day to show me, even though he wasn't playing."

The lessons apparently have paid off.

Kuechly, a relatively unheralded three-star prospect out of Cincinnati St. Xavier High School, ranked second in the nation with 142 regular-season tackles. His average of 11.83 tackles per game is the highest by any freshman since the NCAA began measuring those statistics in 2003.

Kuechly, the Rivals.com national freshman defensive player of the year, will lead the Eagles (8-4) into the Emerald Bowl on Saturday against USC (8-4) at San Francisco's AT&T Park.

"I really didn't know what to expect," Kuechly said. "I wanted to come in, work hard throughout camp and see where it put me. I really had no idea I'd be in the position I am right now. It's definitely very surprising."

Kuechly's breakthrough season helped Boston College emerge as one of the season's biggest surprises. Picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic Division before the season, the Eagles instead placed second.

BC had to replace first-round draft pick B.J. Raji and second-round pick Ron Brace on the defensive line. Herzlich's illness left a huge hole at linebacker. Yet the Eagles still managed to rank 18th in the nation in scoring defense and 23rd in total defense.

Kuechly's improbable rise to stardom was the chief reason BC's defense continued to thrive without Herzlich. Kuechly's unlikely emergence stunned opponents and teammates alike.

"Technically, he's not sound," Herzlich said. "He's not very strong. He's not the fastest.

"But people don't block him."

Herzlich didn't mean to diminish Kuechly's accomplishments. He instead was marveling at Kuechly's ability to avoid or shed blocks. The subject frequently has come up in BC's locker room.

Tops on the list
Boston College's Luke Kuechly has averaged more tackles per game than any freshman since the NCAA began measuring individual tackle statistics in 2003. Here's a look at the top five freshman tacklers over the past five seasons.
Luke KuechlyBoston College200911.83
Brian WagnerAkron200911.00
Travis LewisOklahoma200810.29
Davonte ShannonBuffalo200710.25
Alex KubeNorthern Illinois200710.09
"Luke is a totally different animal," Boston College quarterback Dave Shinskie said. "I've never seen anyone play linebacker like he can. Just to watch him fly around, it seems like nobody blocks him. He's in on every tackle."

Herzlich related a conversation he had with Kuechly on the eve of the ACC championship game. Kuechly was appearing at an ACC luncheon in Tampa, Fla., to receive his ACC defensive rookie of the year award, and Herzlich was becoming the first student-athlete to earn the ACC Commissioner's Cup, which is given in recognition of a student's courage, perseverance and inspiration.

During their trip to Tampa, the two had a brief discussion about Kuechly's success.

"I just really didn't get blocked," Herzlich recalled Kuechly saying.

"That doesn't usually happen," Herzlich replied. "It's not like they weren't trying to block you. You're doing something right."

Kuechly already has done a whole lot right. He has filled a career's worth of highlights into one season.

He was in on three consecutive goal-line stops of Florida State running back Lonnie Pryor in the second quarter of Boston College's 28-21 victory over the Seminoles.

He picked off a Dan LeFevour pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown in a 31-10 triumph over Central Michigan.

With Boston College leading 16-10 over Maryland with less than five minutes left in the regular-season finale, Kuechly stuffed quarterback Jamarr Robinson on a fourth-and-inches sneak from the Terps' 29. BC went on to win 19-17.

"The kid did not have Kryptonite, so there was no way they could stop him," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said after the Maryland game. "That was a big-league play."

If Kuechly could make 142 tackles while still adjusting to the college game, imagine what he might accomplish with a year or two of experience.

"I've still got a long way to go and need to work on a lot of things," Kuechly said. "I have a lot of things I've got to improve on. Each game, I make a ton of mistakes."

Those mistakes lately have been hard to find. Kuechly has made at least nine tackles in each of Boston College's past 10 games. He has recorded double-digit tackles in eight consecutive games and closed the regular season by making 19 tackles against North Carolina and 16 more against Maryland.

Following the leader
Here's a statistical comparison of Luke Kuechly's 2009 season and Mark Herzlich's 2008 season. Herzlich played strongside linebacker last year, while Kuechly primarily played on the weak side this season.
CategoryHerzlich '08Kuechly '09
Solo tackles8181
Total tackles110142
Tackles for loss1312.5
Pass breakups84
Forced fumbles20
Fumble recoveries21
Defensive TDs21
His dramatic rise caused Herzlich to pay Kuechly the ultimate compliment.

"Luke reminds me a lot of myself when I first came in," Herzlich said. "He is just raw talent."

If the Eagles couldn't have Herzlich on the field this season, Kuechly's arrival offered the best possible alternative. Next season, they should have an embarrassment of riches at linebacker.

Now that he has been declared cancer-free, Herzlich has said he plans to play football again next fall. With Herzlich lining up on the strong side and Kuechly manning the weak side, Boston College could boast the nation's best linebacker tandem.

"Next year's going to be great for our middle linebackers," Herzlich said. "[Opponents] aren't going to want to run to the left or the right, so he's probably going to get 200 tackles, whoever that's going to be."

Of course, that assumes Herzlich can recapture his 2008 form one year after battling a life-threatening illness. But even if Herzlich isn't quite as explosive as before, his mere presence should provide Kuechly and the entire team a huge boost.

Kuechly's tackle totals figure to drop once Herzlich returns to the field, but his performance level almost assuredly will rise.

"Having Mark back will be a big impact on our defense," Kuechly said. "He's a great leader who's very passionate about things and very competitive. And more than anything, he's extremely knowledgeable about what's going on and what's around him. He's a person on the field you can consult if you have any questions.''

Kuechly benefited quite a bit from having Herzlich around this season. He can't wait for those tutorial sessions to move from the film room to the playing field.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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