His spring game performance vs. two starters and one veteran backup blocker forced every Irish fan, as well as diehard college football aficionado's nationwide, to take notice:
The nation's next great pass rusher could be in South Bend. Further, for fans tied into the program's recruiting, there could be another ready to debut in pads this August. But neither the latter, massive Monroe, Ga., product Stephon Tuitt, nor his fellow five-star Lynch can yet claim collegiate success vs. BCS-quality or ranked foes.
Sophomore defensive end Kona Schwenke can...and that was about 25-30 pounds in the past.
Late ArrivalOver the last 18 months, Schwenke has made a habit of arriving fashionably late.
His late-January visit to South Bend resulted in his de-commitment from BYU. Remaining in pattern, Schwenke was Notre Dame's final official 2010 recruit, faxing his Letter of Intent a full hour after the class's penultimate letter reached then-incoming head coach Brian Kelly's desk.
He was likewise the final 2010 player to make his field debut: a Week Nine cameo vs. Tulsa during which he recovered a fumble. That late-October timing matched the latest calendar date of a season in which an Irish freshman debuted over the last decade.
But it's Schwenke's head start on his talented, likely more explosive competition, that will be crucial to his depth chart cause this August and into September: 33 snaps over five games that showed Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and defensive line coach Mike Elston that the still-developing defender had the chops to compete vs. top competition.
"Kona is, in my opinion, a veteran," Elston said in the spring. "He has made (a big) jump from where he was at the end of the season to where he is right now.
"Kona is going to be a solid, solid, either first or second-string player. Wherever we're going to put him, he's going to have an added role. He's going to be an invaluable player at the defensive end position.
"He's going to play right and left end. We may have a three-guy rotation (Elston was speaking of seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore). He'll rotate in at those spots to give those guys blows."
Its likely Lynch continued his depth chart ascent since that early-April conversation with Elston, but its clear Schwenke's 2011 ceiling appears higher in the eyes of his coaches than that of fans searching for the next big thing.
Speaking of which, Schwenke's weight progression over the last 18 months has made him the line's "next big thing," at least compared to the hybrid DE/OLB that received a late four-star designation from Scout.com in February 2010:
- Scout.com official listing (2009-NSD): 6'4" 215 pounds
- Notre Dame's official NSD listing, February 2010: 6'4" 227 pounds
- Schwenke's reported weight, according to head coach Brian Kelly, last November: 6'4" 263 pounds
- Schwenke's listed weight as of the conclusion of spring ball, 2011:
6'4" 285 pounds
It's no surprise Schwenke's status has grown in congress with his body.
"His work volume and his ability to put on weight," Elston noted of the sophomore's greatest off-season improvements. "He's put on about 60 pounds from when he got here. His work volume made a big jump; his strength, his attention to detail, his attention to the package, his desire to become a better player, a dominant player. And he's just completely changed his body. He looks great."
According to Ethan Johnson, the line's most experienced competitor and the roster's career sack leader, Schwenke's technical skill has grown as well.
"There's always room for improvement but he looks good right now and he's quick," Johnson offered of the sophomore. "He moves his hands well in pass rush and he's learned to use his hands vs. the run."
It's the latter skill that could give him an early upper-hand vs. incoming talent: Schwenke should be able to hold up as a rotation member while Tuitt, and even Lynch, learn to battle 23-year old men on the other side of scrimmage. At present, Schwenke is the team's best bet for a sturdy, legitimate 3-4 defensive end to relieve both Johnson and Lewis-Moore. And with younger competition not-too-far behind him, consistent improvement will replace weight gain as this calendar year's chief goal.
Reading the tea leaves: Look for 30-35 snaps from Schwenke – in 2012. This season, the sophomore will compete with Lynch and Tuitt for precious backup snaps behind starters Johnson and Lewis-Moore. Like Lewis-Moore before him, Schwenke will have to grow into his body…but by the time the annual Blue Gold game rolls around next April, Schwenke could grow into another position, or at least serve as a 295-pound interior option for a defense that will only increase its use of 4-3 defensive sets.
If not, at 285-295 pounds, he's in line with the measurables of 2009-10-11 starting defensive ends Johnson/Lewis-Moore, though one year ahead of that pair's pace, as neither approached 280-plus entering their sophomore seasons.
Best game: Two tackles and a key QB pressure vs. Utah in a 28-3 upset of the then-#14 Utes, one that kicked off Notre Dame's current four-game winning streak. Schwenke had a fumble recovery, two tackles, and two QB pressures over his first two college contests (Tulsa and Utah).