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Future is now for Ethan Johnson

Aug 11, 2011, 3:35 PM EDT

Getty Images - Jonathan Daniel Getty Images

It’s hard to call Ethan Johnson, a guy that’s seen the field in every game Notre Dame’s played since he came to campus in 2008, a disappointment. He tied for the team-lead in sacks as a freshman. He shifted inside to defensive tackle as a sophomore, again leading the team in sacks while playing undersized and over-matched physically. Sliding back to his natural 3-4 defensive end position last season in Bob Diaco’s new system, he finished second on the team in sacks with five, and fourth in tackles for loss.

Yet Johnson has been the poster-boy for the senior class, and encapsulates the Charlie Weis era at Notre Dame, where good recruiting only resulted in so-so results. Johnson was one of several crown jewels of the 2008 recruiting class. Even though an injury in high school robbed him of most of his senior season, Johnson was ranked the No. 2 strong-side defensive end in the country, behind only Clemson All-American DaQuan Bowers. With a depth chart lacking playmakers on the defensive line, Weis tried to develop his talented freshman on the fly, and Johnson never truly had the ability to develop physically.

“When we got here last year, Ethan was not squatting at all,” Brian Kelly said about his senior defensive end. “He played the year before I got here with no weight training in his lower body. I think you guys watched him, he was on the ground a lot flopping around. He is so much stronger physically from what he’s done on his own through our strength and conditioning program.”

Johnson playing before he was physically ready is hardly his own fault, but rather terms dictated by a lack of depth on the defensive line and a change-on-the-fly player development philosophy by a first time college coach. Likewise, Johnson’s inability to build on an impressive freshman season after entering Notre Dame with a lofty pedigree is a classic case on how not to develop blue-chip recruits.

“I have never really hung my hat on what recruiting sites say,” Johnson said earlier this week. “I’ve had three different defensive coordinators, three different position coaches. This is the first time I’ve gone into a system for two consecutive years and known what to expect. In that respect, we’re going to have a much more productive year because we’re not dealing with a new coaching staff and a new system.”

Comfort in a system is only part of the equation. Johnson’s work in the weight room, where he’s added strength and weight to his frame, were big contributors to the defense’s resurgence down the stretch last season. More importantly, added depth will help both Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore be effective.

“Add the freshman to it and that allows those guys to take a blow here and there that we couldn’t give them last year,” Kelly said. “That’s why we had to activate Kona Schwenke, just to give those guys a blow. It’s on them first, but certainly having some depth is going to help them as well.”

Johnson’s put together an impressive career, even as a guy that was giving up strength and size to his opponents the last three seasons. With his senior season less than a month away, Irish fans will finally see what Johnson is capable of now that he’s physically ready.

Like many of his classmates, it’s better late than never.






  1. smurphdoggy29 - Aug 11, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    So this is Ethan Johnson’s chance at a “Brian Smith” type renaissance reminiscent of the last part of 2010. I hope he seizes it and produces the kinds of results he is capable of and the Coaches expect, and continues to not worry about the hype.

    If he can hit the ground running on September 3rd it will be quite rewarding for him, his team, the coaches, and in the trickle down effect, we the fans.

    All the best this season Ethan !!

  2. nudeman - Aug 11, 2011 at 5:29 PM

    I am struck by one passage in an otherwise ho hum story: He was doing no lower body weight training under Weis?


    I have been shocked by a lot of things I’ve read about the way Weis managed the program, but not enforcing strength training for lineman just tells us one (of many) reason why they were routinely outplayed in the 4th quarter of games against the likes of Navy, Syracuse and Connecticut (not to mention being outplayed in ALL 4 Quarters against better teams).

    I just like everything Kelly seems to be doing, by comparison. Hope this kid has a good year.

    • ndfanwabashman - Aug 11, 2011 at 9:19 PM

      That line also stuck out to me. I don’t really understand what he’s stating here. Is he saying that Ethan Johnson never squatted? Or he wasn’t being pushed hard enough. It’s hard to believe the guy was never required to work his legs.

      • nudeman - Aug 11, 2011 at 9:35 PM

        I can’t imagine Johnson was told to work on his lower body strength and REFUSED.

        My take, based on what I saw for 5 years was that there was little or no attention paid to things like strength training, PARTICULARLY on the defensive side of the ball. Weis was not a details guy, and to him strength training was a “detail”. Stupid.

        They were routinely overpowered in the 4th quarter and were in lousy shape.
        Especially the defense.

      • ndfanwabashman - Aug 11, 2011 at 10:34 PM

        I agree that I don’t think he ever refused to work on his lower body. Just crazy to think a major college football coach didn’t have a detailed strength training program. Although these stories do make me feel hopeful for the future, at least we know why they struggled.

    • ndgoldandblue - Aug 12, 2011 at 12:38 AM

      Ya’ know, in the fourth quarter of the Syracuse game, I though that the Irish looked slow and, for a lack of a better word, weak. After that senior-day embarrassment, I didn’t think that they could do the same thing on senior day to a UConn team that had no right even being on the field with the Irish. That defensive display in overtime was the saddest thing that I have ever seen out of the Irish. They looked…well…see my previous description. I had no idea at the time that their strength and conditioning regimen was contributing so much to their poor play. If we only knew then what we know now. Meh…On a side note, I just beat Navy 47-8 on NCAA Football ’11. Yep…wouldn’t mind seeing that on the field this year.

      • alsatiannd - Aug 12, 2011 at 7:02 AM

        The AI must know how to blow up the triple option.

    • schuey73 - Aug 12, 2011 at 11:13 AM

      I had to read that quote from Coach Kelly a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly! How, in today’s college football, is it possible that he wasn’t doing any lower body strength training? It’s mind boggling. Was he the only one or were there more? That would certainly explain late game and late season collapses in Weis’s last two years.

      Obviously we didn’t see that kind of collapse at the end of the season last year, so I have to believe the strength and conditioning of the players was (and will be) on a whole new level. This can’t be overstated: it’s amazing what a difference a COLLEGE football coach can make! Go Irish!

      • nudeman - Aug 12, 2011 at 11:40 AM

        I’ve been chastised here for Weis bashing, and yes, I agree I/we need to move on.

        Having said that, little things like this keep coming out that shed light on exactly what type of program Weis ran. This is another example of him thinking he could outscheme everyone, and didn’t have to be bothered with things like weightlifting. Thought he could bring his New England offense in, show up, have them fool everyone on every play, throw the ball all over the field and win every game 38-7.

        Forgot about knocking people on their asses, blowing them off the ball and winning in the trenches.

        I’ll say again: I think he is a decent man, a good father/husband, and I hope things work out in Florida. He was just not ready to be a head coach. Might never be.

  3. 1notredamefan - Aug 11, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    Good read Keith! All the recent articles have been great and a reassurance that all we really needed was a coach! The truth comes out in the small details and Weis was about as clueless as I am to the idiosyncrasies of “college coaching”…..

    Needless to say were a lil over 22 days away………HIP HIP HOORAY? (corney?) I know…….GO IRISH

  4. jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 12, 2011 at 12:39 PM

    Thank God we have a detail-oriented guy in there now who pays attention to such trivialities like the lower body strength of the D linemen.

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