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.