Luke Kuechly getting strong praise in OTAs

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers' second-year linebacker is gaining a reputation among his teammates as a leader.

Luke Kuechly isn't resting on his laurels following a 2012 season than garnered defensive rookie of the year honors, as he's taking strides to become the leader of the Carolina Panthers defense.

Kuechly entered the organization with a tough task. A standout middle linebacker, he was asked to change position, and had the unenviable duty of being regarded as 'the future' with Jon Beason still on the roster. He said the right things early on. Kuechly talked about earning his way, finding a place in the locker room, and contributing how he could -- but he suppressed his leadership qualities as he took a back seat to seniority.

That all changed when Beason was lost for the season. There was a void in the center of the field, but more importantly a hole in the Panthers defensive leadership. Despite being the youngest player on the roster, and still trying to find his way -- Kuechly stepped up, took over the team, and earned that lofty award.

The 2013 season is months away, and while there are only a few practices in the books -- Kuechly is already getting the attention of people inside the organization.

To get this kind of praise from Smitty is rare, especially for a young player. He's always been extremely hard on rookies, wanting them to earn their place in the locker room, and chiding them regularly for not working as hard as they should. While he's not playing on the same side of the ball, he is noticing how the young linebacker is changing the team.

The praise didn't end with Smith, as Ron Rivera joined in on the love-fest.

Linebacker isn't as sexy as quarterback, but we're seeing the same transformative effect that Cam Newton had on the organization in 2011. The leap in offensive production made Cam's effect more pronounced, but it's equally impressive. The team sees this too, as they tailored the draft to make his life more easy -- adding two hog mollies to give him some help up front, and prevent as many runners hitting the second level.

It will be fun to see the players in pads when they hit Spartanburg, and we get a chance to see how Kuechly is leading the team along with his new defensive tackles. In a year where both Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher hung up their cleats, Kuechly is ready to put in the work to hopefully have his name in that conversation.

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