Florida DL Duo Prepares for State

True freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and redshirt-freshman nose guard Louis Nix are among a handful of Floridians ready to do battle with the Seminoles on December 29.

Louis Nix started 10 of Notre Dame's 12 games this season. His 11th will likely be next Thursday against Florida State in Orlando. As a lifelong Miami Hurricanes fan who grew up approximately 140 miles north in Jacksonville, the already emotional Nix will have a second job in the Champs Sports Bowl in addition to his role stuffing the Seminoles' run.

"Louis has had a great year for us, the one thing about Louis and where he has to grow is during the week; he knows that," said head coach Brian Kelly. "He has to be a better practice guy during the week: week-to-week and day-to-day. But on Saturdays, there's no mistaking his love. Just the way he plays the game on Saturdays, its fun to watch."

Kelly was asked last week if Nix would be the player "most looking forward" to the forthcoming matchup.

"I would argue that (Aaron) Lynch would be in that boat, too," Kelly offered of the one-time Seminoles verbal pledge. "But there are a number of our young players that are excited about the matchup.

"We just try to tell (Nix, Lynch, and other youngsters) to not give them anything for the bulletin board," Kelly continued. "Save it for the field on Saturday. A lot of our guys are just so excited about the game, especially our Florida kids. Just wait until (game day), don't go outside the realm."

Though relatively harmless in most instances, the affable Nix has done just that this season, a social media practitioner whose musings did not go unnoticed by his head coach.

"It's his first year competing so he's going to be really excited. We just want to make sure we keep him within himself," Kelly began, adding, "As you know…(he gets) very excited…using a lot of different outlets for that excitement."

Sage Leaders on which to Lean

Senior defensive end Ethan Johnson will play his 46th and final collegiate game for the Irish on the 29th. A high ankle sprain kept him from nearly five full games this season and from anywhere near full strength for the final two months.

The Portland, Oregon-native should be close to that elusive threshold when he takes the field vs. FSU.

"High ankle sprains are just slow recovering injuries. It's one thing that can linger on for a long time," Johnson noted of the injury he incurred at Purdue in Game Five. "I really feel like I don't have lingering effects anymore. I feel fast and my calf feels strong and I'm excited about going back out there."

The team's best run defender up front, Johnson's return to form will serve a dual purpose: keeping the Seminoles running game in check and keeping the emotions of four first-year players alongside him within Kelly's desired realm.

"I feel like Louis is a pretty consistent guy on the field," Johnson said when asked how Nix might react to the hometown feel of the contest. "He can talk a lot, but he brings the same type of intensity. I think its special for him because he's going to have a lot of family at the game and if I was playing a game in Oregon I'd be pretty excited too, but I'm pretty sure I'd be the same guy on the field."

The unit's coach Mike Elston has seen growth from the youngsters and he too believes both Nix and Lynch have maintained an even keel during bowl preparations.

"I think they've been pretty professional all season in their approach. I think Aaron got caught up earlier in the season in the USC game and played uncharacteristically," Elson offered. "He's had a chance to really grow from that and approach every challenge the same way. Maybe deep down inside he's got a little extra pep in his step but he's been pretty professional about it and so has Louis.

"All of (the four freshmen defensive linemen: Nix, Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Chase Hounshell) have stepped into a role that increasingly grew as the season went on based on injuries and the need for them to play," Elston continued. "I think they've managed it well and they've handled the expectations that people have put on them – not necessarily the coaches, but that people have put on them. They're going to be very good players. They're not there yet but I'm excited about their progress."

All Bases Covered

Notre Dame's current defensive front features a six-man rotation, with Johnson and classmate Sean Cwynar leading the aforementioned rookies into action. Kelly took measures during bowl practice sessions inside the Loftus Center to try to combat potential cramping issues his Midwest team could encounter playing in the Seminoles northern Florida backyard.

"The only thing we're working through right now is turning up the heat a little bit in Loftus and getting acclimated," Kelly said. "We had some cramping yesterday so we're getting to that point where they're starting to get their legs back."

That includes Johnson, who noted the increased heat isn't necessarily just a mental hurdle for an athlete to overcome.

"The heat is definitely real, just like the (2010) Sun Bowl's lack of oxygen is real. And you can't, that I know of, have a practice field that's low oxygen.

"Turning up the heat definitely makes a difference, just getting used to it. It's not all mental, either. It's getting your body conditioned to it and that's what we've been doing. Hopefully it pays off at game time. The more we practice in it the better it is. The last practice I felt great. The first one – not so great.

"You have to go as hard as you can just like you would in a game and not take any plays off just because the climate is different."

Florida Irish: In addition to Nix (Jacksonville) and Lynch (Cape Coral), six other Irish competitors hail from Florida:

Junior long-snapper Jordan Cowart (Plantation)
Redshirt-freshman C Bruce Heggie (Sorrento)
Junior S Zeke Motta (Vero Beach)
Freshman ILB Anthony Rabasa (Miami) - Rabasa was redshirted after September shoulder surgery...
Junior P Ben Turk (Davie)
Sophomore CB Lo Wood (Apopka)

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories