A redshirt freshman, Leighton McCarthy sheepishly admits he only carries 205 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, but he’s doing big things on the field, and plans to be even bigger.
“I feel like I’m really athletic but, to be a defensive end, I can run with the skinny guys and play with the big guys up front,” McCarthy said. “I feel like I’m really kind of a dual threat.”
That McCarthy can get to the quarterback isn’t a surprise. His three sacks on the season are far shy of the 20 he recorded as a senior at Apopka-Wekiva High School as a senior.
A hip injury last season kept him from producing on the field and surgery on that hip limited him during the spring. FAU coach Lane Kiffin didn’t really know what McCarthy could do until fall camp.
McCarthy’s athleticism allowed him to quickly climb the Owls depth chart, and as the Owls looked for inventive ways to slow Navy’s flexbone attack, McCarthy surged into the starting lineup.
He’s been there ever since.
“He’s really built like a linebacker in some conferences but plays defensive end here because of all the spread stuff,” Kiffin said.
McCarthy’s presence affords defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin the opportunity to get creative with his defensive calls. McCarthy can stop the run on first down, rush the passer on second and drop into coverage on third.
“It’s fun to be out there – go into the world of the DBs and safeties like that,” McCarthy said.
The defensive end turned in one of the biggest defensive plays in FAU’s loss to Wisconsin earlier this season, intercepting an Alex Hornibrook pass and returning it 15 yards.
“I didn’t expect it when it first came,” McCarthy said. “When it came to me I was like, I can’t drop it, I cant drop it. So when I got it, it was real exciting.”
At the time the interception tied McCarthy for the Owls’ lead in picks, giving him one more than then-starting cornerback Raekwon Williams, season-long starting corner Shelton Lewis and starting safety Jalen Young, now tied for second nationally with five interceptions.
Consider it McCarthy’s contribution to the Owls 18 total interceptions, the most nationally.
“I was messing with them for a while until they started to explode with all these interceptions in the season,” McCarthy said, smiling.
But interceptions aren’t why FAU signed McCarthy.
His 35 tackles trail only Hunter Snyder’s 41 among FAU defensive linemen. Those three sacks count among McCarthy’s six tackles for loss, which also leads the Owls.
Sacks, they are what drives McCarthy. And he doesn’t intend to be 205 pounds much longer. He figures that a full offseason in strength coach Wilson Love’s weight program will get him to 220 pounds before next season, and that weight will only continue to grow.
“I feel like I was brought in because of all those sacks,” McCarthy said. “I’m going to live up to what they brought me here to do.”