Heading into Sunday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, all of the attention is focused on Nevada's offense. It's the nation's second-ranked attack, averaging 535.5 yards per game, and features two 1,000-yard rushers in running back Vai Taua and quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Wolf Pack have been called "a team of destiny," as coach Chris Ault proudly proclaimed following their 34-31 upset of Boise State on Nov. 26.
After outscoring opponents 554-287 this season, it's easy to see why everyone's so eager to watch Nevada storm AT&T Park in San Francisco. They just seem to be forgetting one thing: That offense has to go through Boston College sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly.
This season Kuechly has been the most underrated defensive player in the nation. He piled up 171 tackles through 12 games, eight more than any other player and the second-most in ACC history. He's recorded double-digit tackles in every game he's played.
"He gets to the ball no matter where you're at," said second-year BC coach Frank Spaziani. "He runs it down and he gets to you."
Kuechly recorded 73 tackles during BC's season-ending five-game winning streak, helping the team rebound from a 2-5 start to finish 7-5 and become bowl eligible. He was named a consensus All-America, making him the first Eagle to gain that distinction since running back Mike Cloud in 1998. Despite his overwhelming success, he remains largely under-the-radar. So, where did Kuechly come from?
It's best to begin in his hometown of Cincinnati. Kuechly started playing linebacker in the fourth grade, idolizing Ray Lewis for his intensity. Kuechly quickly developed into a standout at St. Xavier High and led the Bombers to a 15-0 record and Division I state championship his junior year. Opponents began to take notice. So did college scouts.
He soon received offers from Michigan State, Stanford and Virginia, among others, eventually selecting Boston College for its academic reputation and small-school atmosphere. Alex Albright and Nick Larkin, former high school teammates who played for Boston College, also persuaded him to join the Eagles.
"They loved it at BC," said Kuechly. "I figured if they had a great time, why can't I?"
It didn't take long for Kuechly to adjust to life on campus. He started in 12 of 13 games as a true freshman, quickly adapting to the increased speed and physicality of college play. While many freshmen were redshirted to give them time to learn complex defensive formations, Kuechly learned them on the go. He paced the Eagles in tackles with 158.
"The game is slowed for him," said Spaziani. "I don't think you can coach it. We try not to mess him up to be honest with you."
Kuechly's tremendous instincts were on display in the fourth quarter of last year's showdown at Maryland. On fourth-and-one, he thwarted the Terrapins' comeback attempt by shooting through the line to stop quarterback Jamarr Robinson in the backfield. Boston College held on to win 19-17.
"They lost yardage," Spaziani said laughing. "For a linebacker to knock somebody back on a quarterback sneak, you have to see it to believe."
Off the field, Kuechly's an outdoorsman. He enjoys fly-fishing with two brothers (Kuechly's the middle child) and his father, something they do during school breaks. He finds it relaxing to track catch salmon and a number of other fish.
Against Nevada on Sunday, Kuechly will have a much more elusive opponent to catch. Kaepernick and Taua have combined for 39 rushing touchdowns this season, and the Wolf Pack's Pistol offense tends to create problems for teams who have never seen it. The Eagles' defense will need to be stout, as BC's offense is averaging just 18.9 points per game, 109th in the nation.
"We just have to make sure that Kaepernick doesn't escape the pocket," said Kuechly. "That's when he's dangerous. He gets out there, he has long strides and he can cover a lot of ground before you know it."
Spaziani is confident that his team -- and his precocious sophomore linebacker -- will be up to the challenge.
"There are a lot of aspects of [Nevada's] offense that are relatively new to us," he said, before adding, "but we're certainly glad Luke's on our side."