Getty Images - Jonathan Daniel

Future is now for Ethan Johnson


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.






Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.




Days before facing Notre Dame, USC coach Steve Sarkisian to take leave of absence


When Notre Dame takes on rival USC on Saturday, they’ll be facing a Trojans team without a head coach. USC athletic director Pat Haden announced today that effective immediately, head coach Steve Sarkisian will be taking an indefinite leave of absence. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will be interim head coach.

While the details are still coming into focus, multiple reports point to another incident with alcohol. Haden himself said that he made the decision after speaking with Sarkisian.

“I called Steve and talked to him. It was very clear to me that he is not healthy. I asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence,” Haden said, according to multiple Los Angeles media reports.

Sarkisian’s decision-making and alcohol use came into the spotlight this August when the head coach made inappropriate statements at a large booster event. Sarkisian addressed the media after the incident, acknowledged mixing medication with alcohol, and vowed to seek help and not to make the same mistake again.

Today’s incident appears to be a relapse, and one that requires immediate attention. Helton ran the team’s practice today and steps back into an interim head coaching role, a job he handled after the Trojans fired Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron left after not being awarded the permanent job.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, I have been in this situation before,” Helton said. “Once again, I’m very fortunate to have a group of first-class kids that are extremely talented and want to do something special here.”

This is the second major sports persona to leave his season to seek treatment in recent weeks. New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia left the team to seek treatment for alcohol issues. The Trojans are coming off an upset loss to Washington on Thursday night, losing 17-12 as a 17-point favorite.