Hungry Man

Senior defensive end Ethan Johnson is no hungrier for success today than he was as a nervous freshman in 2008, a starting sophomore in 2009, or as a junior bookend for Brian Kelly and a new coaching staff last fall. And that's a good thing…

Ethan Johnson is nervous. He's nervous about running out of Notre Dame Stadium's north tunnel for the 39th time on Saturday, though there's nothing unique about that sentiment.

Johnson's uncomfortable too. Uncomfortable before each whistle, even those whistles that blow on a Tuesday in August or a random Wednesday in the spring.

And considering his introspective nature and penchant for self-reflection, Johnson likely had trouble sleeping last night. Or maybe it was last Wednesday, or two weeks ago – regardless, Johnson at some point over the last month, lost a one-on-one battle vs. an Irish offensive lineman. He carried that defeat – perceived or otherwise – through the night and into his next Irish practice.

"I have the same hunger in every single drill," Johnson offered when asked how things have changed at the program over his three seasons. "I'm still nervous for one-on-ones; I feel if you're not nervous or anxious, I don't think you care enough. I still get butterflies before every game. I enjoy feeling like I'm a freshman running out of the tunnel in front of 80,000 people. It still amazes me that that many people come to watch our games."

Over his first two seasons, Johnson fought for a team that ultimately disappointed the bulk of those 80,000-plus in attendance. The senior leader knows his previous Irish teams didn't win enough games, but unlike the bulk of Notre Dame fans, followers and detractors, Johnson's not sure things should be different this season.

"I know everyone wants to hear me say we're the best we've ever been, but I don't even think we were that bad the past few years," Johnson offered with a chuckle. "I don't know why we were losing. I think we had a lot of talented guys…but we just didn't win. I'm not sure it was anyone's fault in particular."

It's an observation difficult to accept for many Irish fans but painfully accurate nonetheless. Consequently, Johnson and his scrimmage mates are charged with serving the sport's bottom line: its W-L ledger, this after a 2010 season offered a baby step (or two) forward.

"I have a bigger role this year than I've ever had," Johnson admitted. "As a leader and player, I'm more comfortable and I think a lot of guys are that way. But I've been excited for every football season. I've wanted to win a national championship every year.

"(Regardless), I'll do the best I can every week to get the guys prepared in my unit every week; prepared to win."

A Good Day Spoiled

Former Irish quarterback Tony Rice once mused that, because of the team's impossibly taxing practices, game day was often comparably easy, almost refreshing.

Johnson's practice approach is similar; his performance therein an indicator of his ensuing mood.

"If I don't win in one-on-ones, that pretty much ruins my day," Johnson said of the team's oft-referenced, full-contact "Rodeo" drill. "I'm going to think about it that night and the next day, and I'm going to think about why I lost.

"Because I just…care."

Extreme? Maybe. Necessary for 2011 progression from good to great? Without a doubt.

Johnson believes that attitude and the example it affords to those around him could be of influence, especially to the program's newcomers.

"When people see that you care it can be contagious," he noted. "Because they look at themselves and wonder ‘What's wrong with me, why don't I care that much?'

"I'll never stop, because I care too much. When guys say they're comfortable I think that's a problem," Johnson continued. "You should never be complacent or happy with where you are. When you are, you should stop playing. There's no point."

As for Johnson's most consistent foils in one-on-one action?

"Trevor (Robinson) has always been a tough guy in one-on-ones," Johnson noted of his classmate and the team's long-time starting right guard. "I go against Taylor (Dever) a lot. I think the offensive linemen hate losing too."

A 5th-year senior and second-year starter at right tackle, Dever not only admires Johnson's approach, he shares it, or has at least learned to do so over the course of his career.

"If you're going against a guy like Ethan or (freshman) Aaron Lynch, they have talent," Dever noted. "But yeah, I think some guys have to learn to do respect every rep. You see it with freshman and I was kind of the same way: unsure and hesitant at first.

"Once you begin to grow and mature you can see how things work and what to expect, then you begin to value your reps as your time starts to run out," he continued before adding the age-old regret, "If you knew what you knew at the end at the beginning…"

Defensive line coach Mike Elston shares Dever's opinion, noting college football neophytes invariably learn the hard way.

"I think it takes the younger players some games," Elston said of mirroring Johnson and Dever's daily approach. "Our young guys don't know how far away they are yet. When they line up against somebody and they get beat or knocked back, or stoned, they'll realize, ‘Okay, this was what coach was talking about. Now I have to go back to the drawing board in practice and do a better job of preparing.'

"Our guys that want to raise their game, they get that every day," Elston said.

And they'll get it from a season spent with Ethan Johnson. A few of them might even ruin his day in the process.


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