Johnson not ready to give up on football dreams yet

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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.”