SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Luke Kuechly was ho-hum on Saturday when talking about what it felt like to make his first hit since undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
The Carolina Panthers middle linebacker was totally businesslike discussing his goal of improving as a pass rusher in 2016.
Then the conversation turned to doughnuts and his face lit up.
The three-time Pro Bowl selection made his first trip to a Krispy Kreme on Tuesday as part of a takeover of Spartanburg before the team reported the next day to Wofford College for training camp.
Kuechly talked about what the experience was like for him, outside linebacker Shaq Thompson and defensive end Kony Ealy with the kind of passion he normally reserves for football, fishing and his mom’s cooking.
“When those doughnuts come out on the conveyor belt there’s hundreds of them,’’ Kuechly said. "You look at them and they all look perfect and delicious.
“Me and Shaq and Kony were all eyeing them, hoping that we got one. They handed one off to us, which was great because we got one right off the conveyor belt.’’
It’s hard to imagine Kuechly, who represents a nutritional supplements company and maintains one of the healthiest diets on the team, would get so excited about fried dough covered in a glaze of butter and sugar.
He was equally excited talking about a trip to The Beacon, a local greasy spoon that features French fries and onion rings stacked about 6 inches high on top of a plate with a cheeseburger.
“They don’t skimp on portion sizes, so that would be a good spot to go if you’re hungry,’’ Kuechly said.
But being a food critic is not why Kuechly is in Spartanburg. The player that came out of Boston College with the nickname “Tackling Machine’’ is here to improve another aspect of his game as he has the past few seasons.
Last year the goal was to get better as a pass defender. He had four interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and 10 pass deflections while leading the team in tackles with 118 despite missing three games with a concussion.
This year the goal is to improve as a pass rusher, and you can bet there won’t be a diet of doughnuts or fried food to slow him down.
The biggest knock, maybe only knock, on arguably the best all-around linebacker in the NFL is he has only seven sacks in four seasons. He had only one a year ago.
A lot of that is because he’s not asked to blitz a lot. That could change as the Panthers want to bring more pressure to protect a young secondary.
Outside linebackers Thomas Davis and Thompson already have demonstrated the ability to get to the quarterback. Davis had 5.5 sacks last season.
If Kuechly becomes a serious pass-rush threat, it would keep signal-callers even more off balance because they won’t know where the linebacker pressure will come from.
“That’s something I’m trying to work on,’’ said Kuechly, whose 620 tackles are the most in the NFL since 2012. “When it’s my turn to blitz, I’ve got to make sure I’m a factor.’’
One of Kuechly’s strengths is he’s never satisfied.
“You look at a linebacker like Thomas, who is good one-on-one, he can make guys miss, he can get after the quarterback ... that’s big,’’ Kuechly said. “If you can play three phases as a backer, if you can cover and can rush and play the run, it’s pretty good.’’
Kuechly said for him blitzing needs to become a feel thing like tackling is.
“I don’t know if art is the right word, but in the run game it just seems pretty straight for me,’’ he said. “In the pass game, I’ve gotten better at that. It seems pretty straightforward. But the rushing aspect, I’ve just got to get a better feel for it.’’
Kuechly felt good about putting on the pads for the first time since the Super Bowl. After being held out of team drills during the offseason to rehab the shoulder, fans were shouting that familiar “Luuuuke!’’ when he made a play on the first defensive series.
“Luke looked good,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “You always worry about it. But the very first time we hit the 9-on-7 drill he steps up and makes a hit. I know as far as he’s concerned now that’s off his back having to worry about how he was going to take the first shot.’’
Kuechly never was as worried as the coaches, if he was worried at all. He wore the shoulder harness only as a precaution and will make a decision later in camp whether to wear it during the season.
“For me, it feels fine,’’ he said of the shoulder. “I’m not overly concerned about it. Hopefully, after this practice, everyone else can calm down, too.’’
In other words, Kuechly would rather talk about doughnuts than his shoulder.