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Tough it out

Bill Brink | Thursday, October 2, 2008

No matter what Pat Kuntz faces – opposing offensive linemen, public speaking engagements or Halo challengers – he toughs it out.

That’s why, in his senior year of high school, he played his last four games with a broken right arm.

Not a hairline fracture that didn’t show up on an X-Ray. A teammate’s helmet squashed his arm as Kuntz made a tackle, and Kuntz had a cast from his wrist to above his elbow. He played anyway. After one game without elbow flexion, he decided he needed more mobility and cut the cast down so his arm could flex.

“It hurt a lot, but it was my senior year,” he said.

It’s that attitude that helped Kuntz become what defensive line coach Jappy Oliver calls his most disruptive player and what defensive coordinator Corwin Brown calls a “tough guy.”

“I’d say that I kind of have some of those qualities,” Kuntz said.

Before he was disruptive, he was tough at the high school level. Kuntz holds the career sack record at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis with 25.5 sacks, something he is quite proud of. He bet an older teammate who previously held the record that he would break it, then did just that.

“Seeing him pay me off was probably one of the best feelings I’ve had,” he said.

Playing high school football meant a great deal to Kuntz.

“That was probably one of my best experiences of my life,” he said. “People take it for granted playing with guys you’ve known your whole life that would basically die for you. With the success my football team had – we won three consecutive state championships – it was just one of the best times of my life.”

Notre Dame was a logical choice coming from a Catholic high school in Indianapolis, Kuntz said. He grew up a Notre Dame fan. But for Kuntz, coming to South Bend was about more than fanhood.

“What made me want to come here was tradition and being the guy from my town who went here,” he said. “I didn’t care who offered me. I wanted to come here the whole time.”

Kuntz said playing behind defensive lineman Derek Landri helped him learn essential skills to playing his position.

“Being the first guy off the ball, being relentless and having a motor that never stops. That’s probably the best thing I learned from him,” Kuntz said.

Kuntz played for two years in the 4-3 defensive scheme, where four players start on the line of scrimmage and only three linebackers play. For the past two years, he’s played in the 3-4 scheme, which reverses those roles. This year, however, Kuntz said his role mimics what he played his first two years.

“It’s a lot more attacking defense,” he said. “I played a lot of 3-technique my first two years. It’s definitely different, but it reminds me a little bit of it.”

Stanford’s running backs, Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble, present a two-sided challenge to Notre Dame’s defense Saturday. To quelch the running game, Brown said, the defense has to control the line of scrimmage.

“All running backs run the same when there’s no hole,” Brown said. “When there’s no hole or the holes are small, it’s harder for them to be effective.”

For that to happen, he said, Kuntz has to cause problems up front.

“We need him to play hard, be disruptive in there,” Brown said. “He’s the oldest guy out there for the most part. He’s gotta show them. When he’s out there he needs to be a problem.”

Disruptiveness isn’t a physical trait, Oliver said. It’s a mentality.

“The way we call our defenses help that because we call an aggressive style of defense,” Oliver said. “It’s their attitude, just wanting to get there.”

That aggressive play-calling hasn’t produced much in the way of tangible results this season – only one sack – but that didn’t concern Kuntz or Brown. Kuntz said there were other stats, like completion percentage or turnovers forced, that showed the success of a defensive scheme. Brown’s philosophy, he said, is to keep the offense short of the sticks at all cost. The other team could complete 70 percent of their passes, he said, but as long as they were short passes and the defense forced three-and-outs, he’d be okay with it.

“You can be very effective with the pass rush by not getting sacks,” Kuntz said. “Getting your hands up, altering throws, things like that.”

If disruptive describes Kuntz on the field, messy describes him off of it. He’s an eccentric guy, outgoing with a vibrant personality. His hair reflects the many sides of his psyche; so far this season, it went from long, flowing brown hair to a thoroughly terrifying skullet to a shaved dome. Now he sports a buzz cut.

Kuntz’s roommates at their off-campus house known as “the Kingdom,” tackles Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich, linebacker Steve Quinn and safety Kyle McCarthy, describe him as the untidy child of the house. He’s not proud of it, but it’s a stigma he’s stuck with.

He’s got them all beat at Halo, however. He said he’s a level 48, out of 50, on xBox Live, and scoffs at the idea that guard Eric Olsen is anywhere near his level.

“He’s not even in my league. He’s in double-A, and I’m in the MLB,” he said.

No one on the team escapes Kuntz’s insults and jokes. The defensive linemen alone offer him enough fodder most of the time, but he’s not afraid to spread the love around the locker room.

“They love to play practical jokes,” Oliver said of the defensive linemen. “You better watch them, because they’ll get you. They will get everybody and anybody.”

Kuntz agreed.

“Everybody’s open game. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior,” he said. “If you do something stupid, everybody’s going to get after you.”

Recently, Kuntz had a problem with nose tackle Ian Williams’ dreadlocks shedding hair onto his table during meetings. After Williams ignored Kuntz’s warnings to stop, Kuntz pulled out wads of his long locks and spread them all over Williams. “And I didn’t tell him until after the meeting,” he said.

Kuntz’s act will soon go public; he’s scheduled to speak at tonight’s pep rally. He won’t give any hint as to what he’ll say, but he has “a little something something” planned.

“I’m a pretty good public speaker. Let’s just say I’m probably going to have a good time,” he said. “People might like it, people might not. We’ll see what happens. I told somebody that they better put Jimmy first because I’m going to be a tough act to follow.”