SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Former NFL head coach turned ESPN analyst Jon Gruden so often showers players with praise, it's sometimes hard to take his gushing seriously. So before the Carolina Panthers' nationally-televised preseason game in Baltimore on Thursday night, Gruden's claim that linebacker Luke Kuechly could one day be named the league's defensive player of the year could have been taken as just another wild statement from the booth.
But Kuechly backed up that praise by turning in the Panthers' most dominant performance by a defensive player since Julius Peppers wore a Carolina uniform. Last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year terrorized the Ravens with seven tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defensed.
"He's a very humble young man, so I'll just do it for him and tell you that he has the opportunity to ascend," head coach Ron Rivera said. "If he continues to grow, we most certainly will talk about him in the same vein as some of those great linebackers."
Kuechly's defensive show took place on the former field of one of the all-time greats, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. But while Lewis reveled in attention, Kuechly seems to run away from it. Try as they might, reporters can't get last year's NFL tackling leader to credit himself.
"The D-line played well again and got some pressure on the quarterback," Kuechly said after Thursday's game, deflecting praise as usual. "We were able to get some picks and turnovers because they were pressuring the guys up front."
But Kuechly does have a point about the guys in front of him. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the Panthers' top two picks in April's draft, had the best games of their young careers Thursday. Their presence in the middle of Carolina's line helped keep blockers of Kuechly, giving him more room to roam.
But like Kuechly, Lotulelei - who had a sack and four tackles, three for a loss - doesn't seem to be fond of the spotlight.
"It was OK. It was good productivity-wise. I made a couple plays. But assignment-wise I still have to clean some things up and technique-wise I have to clean some things up with my pass rush and staying in my gap. I made some plays but still got to keep working to get better," Lotulelei said.
Meanwhile, Short, who also picked up a sack and three tackles for a loss, looks to be getting more comfortable with the jump from Purdue to the pros.
"It actually feels like (the game) is slowing down," Short said. "I'm just trying to go 100 miles per hour. They tell us if you mess up, mess up going 100 miles per hour."
If Lotulelei and Short can play up to their potential once the season begins, the Panthers' goal of having one of the most formidable front sevens in the league looks well within reach. It certainly doesn't hurt to have an emerging superhero running the show from the middle.
"He's Clark Kent," Lotulelei said of Kuechly. "It's a privilege to play with him."