Getty Images - Jonathan Daniel

Johnson not ready to give up on football dreams yet


The very best college football has to offer will gather tomorrow night in Radio City Music Hall, waiting to hear their names announced during the opening round of the NFL Draft. Meanwhile, former Irish defensive end Ethan Johnson will be a thousand miles away, hopefully making up for lost time.

For a player that spent the better part of four years in the Irish starting lineup, you’d think he’d feel up to speed. But a senior season derailed by an ankle injury, and some personal problems at home that kept him away from training for the draft, had many believing Johnson had played his final down of football.

Johnson sat and watched as NFL scouts put Irish seniors through their final audition before this weekend’s NFL Draft during Notre Dame’s Senior Day. What appeared to be the desire to walk away from the game was really a personal problem Johnson kept under wraps.

“I had a family medical issue that demanded my immediate attention,” Johnson said. “I was flying back to Portland almost every weekend trying to resolve it, and I wasn’t able to give my full attention to the pro day. Although I was staying in shape and I was working out as much as possible, there’s a huge difference between doing that and getting prepared for the NFL combine and testing.”

The setback was just another pitfall in a career that was pock-marked with difficulty. A knee injury suffered in the first game of his senior season of high school kept him out of action until he arrived in South Bend. After a promising true freshman campaign where Johnson tied for the team lead in sacks, he moved to the interior of the line for his sophomore year, playing as an undersized defensive tackle for a defense that struggled to stop the run and fell apart down the stretch.

Brian Kelly’s hiring and the return to the 3-4 defense put Johnson back at his natural end position and he started all thirteen games during a rock solid junior campaign. After a disastrous stretch of football from a developmental standpoint — three different defensive coordinators, four different position coaches (Mike Elston’s illness kept him out of action for a stretch) — it seemed things were coming together for a promising senior season. Until an ankle injury against Purdue all but ended his senior season.

“The injury was frustrating. I started the season the way I wanted to, but four games wasn’t enough to make a huge impression,” Johnson said. “When I came back I wasn’t close to 100 percent but I could still help the team win, so I came back because we really needed help against the run, so I wanted to be out there.”

Johnson was out there, but no where near at his best, nullifying his ability to get to the passer and keeping him far from full strength when he returned to duty against Maryland.

“Trying to stop the run with a high ankle sprain isn’t the easiest thing to do,” Johnson said. “But I felt like I did an okay job.”

If there’s one thing that might be a bigger challenge than battling through an ankle injury, it’s getting on NFL Draft boards after jumping into the fray late. With things at home solved quicker than expected (Johnson at one point considered an attempt for the 2013 season), he and his agent went about reminding teams about a certain 6-foot-4, 295-pound defensive end that can both play in the 3-4 and also get after the passer.

“When I first told my agent that I wanted to play, I was just hoping that I’d get a chance to go to camp and prove myself,” Johnson said. “But I’ve been contacted by almost every team, every team has my number to call. I’m completely healthy, my ankle is completely healthy, and I’m in my better shape than I was last season.”

It might be an uphill battle to hear his named called this weekend, but Johnson will stay in Florida training until it’s time to head to a team’s camp. Until then, he’ll keep his head down and wait for a team to give him a chance.

“I’ve had teams calling to say, ‘Look for our number on draft day,'” Johnson said. “I feel like teams are definitely interested.”

Kizer named MVP at annual ECHOES awards

@NDFootball Twitter

DeShone Kizer was named the Monogram Club’s Most Valuable Player for the 2016 season at the 96th annual Notre Dame football awards banquet. Kizer was voted team MVP by his teammates, after throwing for 2,925 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushing for 472 yards and eight scores.

He was one of 15 players honored with an award at the “ECHOES,” with the following accolades being given:

Equanimeous St. Brown, Offensive Player of the Year.
James Onwualu, Defensive Player of the Year
Greer Martini, Next Man In award
Drue Tranquill, Rockne Student-Athlete Award
Cole Luke, Nick Pietrosante Award
Isaac Rochell, Lineman of the Year
Quenton Nelson, Offensive Lineman of the Year
Scott Daly, Special Teams Player of the Year
Alex Bars, Newcomer of the Year, Offense
Nyles Morgan, Newcomer of the Year, Defense
Ben Stuttman, Scout Team Player of the Year, Offense
Jonathan Jones, Scout Team Player of the Year, Defense
Mark Harrell, Father Lange Iron Cross
Tyler Newsome, Irish Around the Bend



Notre Dame names 7 captains for 2017 team

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Notre Dame named seven captains for the 2017 season, the most to wear the ‘C’ in school history. Quarterback DeShone Kizer, linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, safety Drue Tranquill and walk-on receiver Austin Webster were all given the honor.

McGlinchey returns in the role, the 22nd different two-time captain in the program’s history. New to the job are the rest, including Kizer, who has yet to make a decision on if he’ll return for 2017 yet.

After worries about the team’s leadership heading into the 2016, the naming of captains in the immediate aftermath of the season is a change—Brian Kelly not naming his team’s official leaders into August training camp last year. It’s not an unprecedented move for Kelly (he named Harrison Smith and Michael Floyd team captains at the banquet following the 2010 season), though it points to some changes—some subtle, others not—that’ll likely take hold after a four-loss season.

Webster, a rising senior reserve wide receiver from California who has yet to register a stat in a Notre Dame uniform, made his debut as a sophomore in 2015 against UMass, is the first active walk-on to receive the honor.


Irish land blue-chip OL Aaron Banks

Tom Loy, Irish 247

Notre Dame received the commitment of 4-star offensive tackle Aaron Banks on Friday afternoon. Picking the Irish over a national offer list that included Michigan, Tennessee, and local programs USC and UCLA, the 6-foot-7, 335-pound Banks reminded all that even if the Irish only won four games this season, Harry Hiestand is still one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country.

Banks made the commitment from a ceremony at his high school in El Cerrito, California. And when he picked the Irish, he added to Notre Dame’s impressive offensive line haul, joining Dillan Gibbons, Joshua Lugg and Robert Hainsey — a key piece of the puzzle moving forward.

Banks is a consensus 4-star recruit and a Top 200 prospect. He took an official visit to Michigan in November, but has been a long-time target of Hiestand’s, visiting South Bend in September and welcoming Brian Kelly and Hiestand into his home after the USC game.

As a big recruiting weekend gets started at Notre Dame, the annual Echoes Awards will serve as the beginning of an important home stretch for a program without a bowl game. As Kelly still looks to lock in a defensive coordinator, not to mention other staff changes still in the air, Banks takes back some of the lost momentum, a key commitment heading into a holiday dead period before a furious finish leading into the first Wednesday in February.

Banks is No. 18 in the Irish recruiting class. He’s an early-enrollee, ready to hit campus within weeks and compete on the interior of the offensive line during spring ball.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.