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Last defense

Matt Gamber | Friday, November 13, 2009

On a Notre Dame defense, and particularly in a secondary, that has shuffled on an almost weekly basis in 2009, one piece of the puzzle has remained intact.

And does it come as a surprise to anyone that that piece is free safety Kyle McCarthy?

“It’s been very important [to have him back there],” Irish defensive backs coach Corwin Brown said. “I think what he’s done more than anything else is be able to keep the guys fairly settled, no matter who has been in there with him.”

Ironically — or appropriately — enough, the same could be said about McCarthy’s role in his off-campus home last year, when he lived with three of his teammates, including current fifth-year tackle Paul Duncan. In an Oct. 19, 2008, Irish Insider cover story, McCarthy called himself “the dad” of the house, where it was his job to keep his teammates in line.

It’s not a perfect analogy — no analogy is — but McCarthy’s role on the defense has been comparable this season.

“He understands the bigger picture better, and he’s taken on more of a leadership role,” Brown said. “He’s the older guy back there, and he understands where he’s at.”

Old Reliable

Whenever the Irish have struggled and have been in need of a big play, it seems like McCarthy’s been there, with game-clinching interceptions in wins against Michigan State and Boston College contributing to his total of five picks for the year.

Often the last line of defense, McCarthy leads the Irish in solo (44) and total (72) tackles this season, and it isn’t close. Junior linebacker Brian Smith places second in both categories with 28 and 51, respectively.

And as the captain and unquestioned leader of the Notre Dame defense, it’s McCarthy who is often responsible for making defensive calls and arranging his teammates in accordance with offensive formations and audibles.

“He makes a lot of calls. He’s really football smart,” senior defensive back Darrin Walls said. “That’s one thing that we need out there. He directs people, tells them where to go and how to line up. When you have a guy like that who you can trust, that’s always good.”

McCarthy’s persistence in having to wait until 2008 to earn a full-time starting spot make him a good example for younger players to follow as well, Walls said.

“I think the whole process for him, coming here behind [former Irish standout and current Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski] and then finally having the chance to play and making the best of it — that’s the kind of guy you want leading your team,” Walls said.

Family affair

Like any of his fellow fifth-year seniors, McCarthy has been around long enough to see just about everything, from back-to-back BCS berths to the worst two-year run in school history.

McCarthy has even been long around long enough to play two seasons with his younger brother, Dan, who as a sophomore has climbed the depth chart to become his older brother’s backup. Looking at their resumes coming out of Cardinal Mooney H.S. in Youngstown, Ohio, it’d be hard to tell the McCarthy brothers apart.

Both were two-way standouts that won state titles as quarterbacks and also posted gaudy statistics at defensive back while gaining state and national recognition for their individual efforts.

After earning all-conferences honors as a junior wide receiver, Kyle became the team’s starting quarterback as a senior in 2004. McCarthy passed for 557 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 1,273 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 135 carries to earn all-state recognition. As a defensive back, he recorded 70 tackles and made five interceptions, returning two for scores — including a record-setting 93-yard pick-six in the state title game to earn the game’s MVP award.

McCarthy also displayed his supreme athletic ability on the baseball diamond, where he set a school-record with 20 stolen bases as a senior and also posted seven wins and a sub-4.00 earned run average.

As for younger brother Dan? He was the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior in 2007, and a finalist for the prestigious Mr. Football award in Ohio, earning second-team All America honors from USA Today, according to und.com. He rushed for over 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns in two seasons at quarterback while posting 249 tackles and 16 sacks in his final two years on defense.

“It’s been great playing with him. He’s a real good player,” Kyle said of his brother. “The guys on the team all think he’s their little brother, too.”

But Dan isn’t the only brother Kyle sees on a daily basis at Notre Dame. After the craziness of his house last year, Kyle opted for a more quiet alternative this year, he said.

“I’m living with my older brother, who’s also a grad student,” Kyle said, referring to his brother Brian, 2006 Notre Dame graduate. “It’s definitely been a lot more laid-back. It’s been great.”

Growing as a leader

Following in the footsteps of NFL-caliber safeties like Zbikowski and David Bruton, a Denver Broncos draft pick last season, McCarthy has improved not only as a player, but as the leader of the defense — a particularly important trait because of his role as a veteran and his position in the defensive backfield.

“Kyle’s grown to be a great player and a great leader, and our players notice that,” Walls said. “He’s taken control in the weight room, in the locker room, and when you have a guy like that you can depend on, it really helps the team.”

Walls said McCarthy is more of a “lead-by-example” type but knows the right time to step up and address the team.

“He doesn’t always speak much, but when he does speak, people listen to him,” Walls said. “They do what he tells them to do. He leads by example and everyone follows behind him.”

Brown said the type of person McCarthy is makes him a good leader.

“Kyle is a classy dude, and I think the best thing about Kyle is he’s not selfish,” Brown said. “He’s trying to help out others. I believe when you put others first, when it’s not always about you, everybody else appreciates that … That’s why he’s played the way he’s played this year.”

Bouncing back

After last week’s 23-21 loss to Navy, the second straight at home to the Midshipmen, the Irish season reaches a crossroads at Pittsburgh Saturday. And with big-picture questions abounding about the state of the Notre Dame program five years into the Charlie Weis era, one might think McCarthy and his fellow captains would have a tough time keeping their team focused on a talented Panthers team.

That’s not the case, McCarthy said.

“It has zero effect on how we go about doing things,” McCarthy said. “That’s all going outside the locker room. Inside the locker room, there’s no questions or anything like that. We just go out and prepare everyday with trust in the guys in this locker room and trust in the coaching staff, and we’re excited to play Pitt on Saturday.”

Weis declared after the Navy loss that the theme this week would be “accountability,” and McCarthy said Tuesday that early in the week — beginning Monday, when the players have the day off but it was reported a larger number than usual came in to work out and watch extra film — the returns were positive.

“As far as preparation and prepping for the game, our guys need to be accountable for the job at hand,” McCarthy said. “The coaches are going to put us in the position to make plays, but it’s up to the players to go out and execute and make plays. Last week we struggled a little bit, so we just need to maybe prepare a little harder, pay attention to detail, and hopefully get it corrected this Saturday.”