To many Americans of the Cold War era, Joe McCarthy was a demagogue.
To many Notre Dame fans of the Charlie Weis era Kyle McCarthy has become a demigod.
A young man of partial divinity, McCarthy was born the son of mortals (Jon and Janet McCarthy), sent from on high (Youngstown, Ohio) with the blessings of a succession of great deities (Tom Zbikowski and David Bruton).
As the 2009 season breaks from a long summer of anticipation, so too does the irresistible force of Notre Dame McCarthyism.
But how important will McCarthy be in 2009?
Traditionally a great free or strong safety is the penultimate game changer. He’s the closer, the playoff goaltender, and the final frontier. Think back to 2005 when a young, impassioned Zbikowski made three key touchdown-saving Don Beebes inside the five yard line.
The ensuing results were a field goal, a turnover at the goal line, and a goal-line stand. All were plays that turned each game on a dime and helped the Irish move towards a 9-2 regular season record and a BCS bowl birth.
The football reality for McCarthy is that he may possess a body-type more prepared to use his 3.13 Mendoza School of Business GPA from Monday to Friday next year and not his 6’1", 210-lbs. for NFL Sundays. But that has not, and will not, stop the torch of “game-changing safety” from being passed to him in 2009.
A stellar 2008 included some highly respectable numbers. McCarthy hauled in two interceptions, led the team with 110 tackles, tallied 64 solo stops, and accounted for three tackles for a loss.
He was the first Notre Dame defensive back to top the century mark in take downs and, at times, looked like the most efficient tackler on the field.
That efficiency comes from an extraordinary ability to navigate his way up to the line of scrimmage or out into the flat during the course of a play to find the ball carrier or receiver. At the five-yard mark he can break down, locate his target, establish balance, and power himself into contact. He rarely, if ever, misses a tackle. He frequently, if not always, brings his target to the turf for one of those patented solo tackles.
McCarthy describes the process as the ability to “slow his feet” to prepare for contact but there is nothing slow about it. His remarkable ability to make open-field tackles, especially when he’s been left out on an island as the last defender, is the equivalent to the two-out, two-run double or a flurry of overtime saves in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
The 2009 Irish season will ride on a number of key individuals. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen must ascend to the top of the college football passer ratings. Armando Allen must parlay his diverse abilities into a style of play that mirrors the finest all-purpose backs in the country. Brian Smith must go from sideline to sideline with Ray Lewis-like intensity and bring all the energy a true game-changing linebacker can provide.
With that said, there may not be a more important, yet under-recognized Irishman than the unheralded Rivals three-star recruit out of Cardinal Mooney High. He will not be on any 2009 watch lists, he may not garner much (if any) national attention, and he may avoid the spotlights reserved for Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, or Manti Teo.
Does all that recognition matter?
If McCarthy can channel his inner Zibby and outer Bruton, no Irish fan will care. If McCarthy can make another 110 tackles and two interceptions in 2009, no Irish fan will forget it. If McCarthy can recreate such ’08 performances as the Stanford win (14 tackles, 7 solo), the Michigan blowout (10/7), or the Pitt game (15/7), every Irish fan will remember No. 28 for many years to come.
Have divine faith in Kyle. A humble idol has found his congregation.