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Kyle McCarthy: Man of the house

Bill Brink | Friday, November 21, 2008

Editor’s note: this story originally ran on Oct. 19, 2008.

“Take off your shirt!”

Kyle McCarthy shakes his head, unable to hide a sheepish grin.

“Take off your shirt!” the yell comes again. It’s not from a female student dying to see a football player topless, but rather from nose tackle Pat Kuntz, one of McCarthy’s housemates. Once he heard McCarthy, a senior safety, would have his picture taken, Kuntz had to be a part of it, and he kept asking – no, pleading – for McCarthy to undress.

McCarthy refused. So his housemates – Kuntz, offensive tackle Paul Duncan and linebacker Steve Quinn – along with linebacker John Ryan and receiver Robby Parris, conspire to create the most ridiculous setting imaginable for a picture.

McCarthy, who acts respectful and intelligent, put up with the nonsense. He reserves himself for the most part but exudes a quiet sense of humor. He looks surprised, however, when told he led the nation in solo tackles with 17.

“You’re honestly the first person that told me that,” he said after a pause.

Before long, it will be hard to ignore.

Full house

McCarthy painted quite a picture of his off-campus home. There’s Pat Kuntz, the resident child, making a mess and playing Halo 3. There’s Paul Duncan, the nicest person McCarthy’s ever met. There’s Steve Quinn, who loves gummy bears for some reason McCarthy can’t fathom. There’s also tackle Mike Turkovich, who … McCarthy couldn’t think of anything, so he asked Kuntz.

“He always wears boxers,” Kuntz offered.

“Yeah, he never wears clothes in the house,” McCarthy said. “He’s got boxers on, but that’s about it.

Quinn called McCarthy the dad of the house, but Kuntz called him the mom. McCarthy agreed with Quinn.

“I’m the dad of the house,” he said. “Pat’s a child. I have to whip him into shape every once in a while.”

The five of them carpool to campus, but not everyone pulls their weight. McCarthy and Kuntz are the main drivers – the “workhorses,” Kuntz said – while Duncan slacks in the transportation department.

“Duncan, I don’t think he’s ever started his car,” McCarthy said. “He’s trying to save gas money.”

Lest one get the wrong idea, McCarthy was quick to mention that the five of them clean the house once a week.

“I don’t want you guys to get the wrong impression, it’s not a shack. It’s a nice house,” he said.

And McCarthy would, reluctantly, call himself a nice guy. “I don’t want to be boastful, but I’d say I’m a nice, hardworking Midwestern kid,” he said.

Path to success

But years before he was man of the house, McCarthy played quarterback at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. He rushed for 1,273 yards and 14 touchdowns and passed for 557 yards and five touchdowns as a senior. He also played safety, recording 70 tackles and five interceptions his senior season.

When colleges came calling, McCarthy heard from MAC schools as well as service academies who were interested in him as a quarterback. Tempting, but not right for him.

“It was a tough decision, but the lure of playing big-time college football really won me over,” he said. “When you’re playing for Notre Dame, it’s a whole different story.”

When he arrived at Notre Dame, however, he battled both injury and the depth chart. He had safety Tom Zbikowski, who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens, in front of him, but he said the two became close.

“Zibby and myself became real good friends right off the bat,” he said. “We both play the same position and have the same interests. I felt like his style of play and my style of play were pretty similar, but we’re both our own player.”

McCarthy said he learned the workings of the defense from watching on the sideline, but the transition from being a big deal in high school to a relative no-name his freshman year humbled him.

“It taught me that no one’s going to give me anything, you’ve got to work for it,” he said. “I’ve tried to keep my head down, keep working.”

He knew he was on the right track, however, near the end of his junior season, when he started getting more playing time. His confidence has never wavered, he said, but playing in front of 80,000 people can take some getting used to.

McCarthy’s older brother Brian graduated from Notre Dame in 2006, and his younger brother, Dan, is a freshman safety on the team this fall. McCarthy said he enjoys having his brother around, both during football and outside of it.

“We pick on him a little bit, myself and my friends included. I think they think he’s their brother too,” he said. “We’re excited for him to come along next year, and he’s going to be a great player.”

To make sure his brother takes care of himself, McCarthy said he checks up on Dan from time to time, but that to some extent, he’s on his own.

“I can guide him in certain areas he needs to be guided,” he said. “I keep an extra close watch on him in the meeting rooms, to make sure he’s doing what he needs to be doing. But he’s a big boy now.”

Tackling machine

So far this season, the big boys on the field have had to fear McCarthy.

The style of the Irish defense and its opponents have somewhat inflated McCarthy’s tackles. Notre Dame has been in the nickel package for the first two games of the season to neutralize the spread offense, and running backs have been funneled to McCarthy and safety David Bruton.

Irish defensive coordinator Corwin Brown said McCarthy is a reliable guy and someone who does what he’s taught.

“Up until this point, he’s a guy that you give him rules and assignments and he tries his best to execute them,” Brown said. “He doesn’t get all of the flash and the flair, and everybody isn’t hollering his name, but at the end of the day when you look at the film and you look at the stat sheets and he’s doing his job.”

McCarthy said it wasn’t a negative that other offenses focused more on Bruton; in fact, it gets him going.

“I’m the new guy, right? I hope they underestimate me,” he said. “It kind of makes me excited. And it kind of motivates me, to be honest, to get my respect.”

McCarthy and Bruton got to know each other well coming in as freshmen from Ohio, and despite disagreements over music – Bruton likes rap, McCarthy likes rock, and they can’t reconcile the two – they get along both on the field and off.

“We’ll watch film together, we’ll talk about schemes together,” he said. “We’ve got our differences, but we generally like each other.”

Targeting Ringer

McCarthy, Bruton and the rest of the Irish defense have a new task this weekend: stop Spartans running back Javon Ringer, who has nine touchdowns in three games this season.

“The guy that they’ve got, he’s a Heisman hopeful, he’s got that kind of talent,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got to be prepared, the defensive line, linebackers and safeties to come up and tackle him.”

Tackling Ringer, he said, was not so much a matter of positioning as one of prepping oneself for a potential big hit.

“Honestly, you probably just have to buckle up a little bit tighter,” McCarthy said. “He’s a guy that will juke you, but he’s got some weight to him, some muscle to him, he’ll try to run you over at times.”

If one were to look at his teammates’ stage theatrics for his photo shoot, however, one might think McCarthy capable of stopping anyone. In various poses, with Kuntz as the art director, he has a foot on Parris’ gut while Kuntz holds on for dear life. Duncan, who wanted no part of any of this, stood in hysterics in the background.

Will McCarthy to live up to his teammates’ view of him, as well as his lead in solo tackles? He doesn’t know, but he’s not worried about it. His thoughts are elsewhere. After learning he had the lead, he said, “I guess I hope I lead at the end.”