During halftime of the Panthers-Ravens game Thursday night ESPN analyst Jon Gruden stepped out of the broadcast booth to take a break and like everyone watching at home to process what he’d just seen from Luke Kuechly. In the span of three series in the second quarter the Panthers’ second-year linebacker helped create four turnovers – one that was overturned by the officials – and staked his claim as the game’s next great middle linebacker. “Kuechly’s a (beast) isn’t he?” Gruden said. “You lose (Brian) Urlacher. You lose Ray Lewis. Someone’s got to take the torch. He’s got the torch.” Kuechly took the torch from an injured Jon Beason last season moving from outside to middle linebacker and becoming the heart of a Panthers’ defense that improved dramatically after the switch. Following the retirements of Urlacher and Lewis several well-respected NFL figures are pointing to Kuechly as the player most likely to replace Urlacher and Lewis as the premiere middle linebacker. Gil Brandt the Dallas Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel from 1960-89 was one of the first observers to suggest Kuechly as a possible heir to the Urlacher/Lewis throne in an NFL.com column in May. When Gruden was studying video while preparing for the Panthers’ game at Baltimore the former Tampa Bay and Oakland coach couldn’t take his eyes of Kuechly. “I saw him on film. He made every tackle the (first) two preseason games. He’s really something” Gruden said. “You loved him coming out of Boston College. You can’t put the projector down and take three or four steps without saying ‘Who the heck is that guy?’” There are a handful of players who can make a strong case as the league’s best inside linebacker. Kuechly cites the San Francisco tandem of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman as well as two other players from the 2012 draft – Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David who is an outside linebacker. Derrick Johnson and Jerod Mayo have been perennial Pro Bowlers while James Laurinaitis and Brian Cushing have become defensive pillars for St. Louis and Houston respectively. But coaches and personnel experts rave about Kuechly’s combination of youth speed size toughness and instincts – even if Kuechly is mostly mum on the topic of his place among the best linebackers. “He’s a very humble young man so I’ll do it for him and tell you he has an opportunity to ascend” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera a linebacker for nine NFL seasons. “And if he continues to grow we’ll most certainly be talking about him in the same way as those great linebackers.”