"I'm almost there, I'm just not able to play football," Ethan Johnson said. He sprained his ACL in Lincoln High's (Portland, Ore.) season opener and hasn't played since. "Hopefully it will be quicker."
Johnson will be 100 percent when he arrives on Notre Dame's campus in the summer. To make sure of that, he and his family have decided to pass on playing in the U.S. Army All-American game on Jan. 5 in San Antonio.
On top of his rehab, Johnson has also joined the school's swim team. Both his parents were high school swimmers, and Johnson used the pool to rehab his back following an injury his freshman season. He also swam competitively up until he was 10-years old. So it's familiar waters.
"People say I might be good because I'm so big," Johnson said. "I'm not in any kind of shape to say I might be good this year because all those guys have like 10-percent body fat. They are all pretty small guys. The first meet is on Friday, and I'm not going to be ready for it. I can't kick as hard as I can because of my knee right now.
"Just my injury made me go out. And I like swimming, it's cool, and will get me into really good shape."
Johnson was living up to his five-star rating in the opener, making six tackles, recording a sack and forcing two fumbles. He was also getting the all-star treatment, having to deal with cut blocks all evening.
He felt the pain in his knee at the end of the first half.
"It was really bothering me," Johnson said. "In the second half my knees kept getting banged up because I was getting chop blocked.
"I just kept on playing. I didn't feel quite as explosive. I could move around, it just felt a little weird."
Johnson remembers getting hit after a play real late in the game that may have just ended his season.
"During practice that week, during conditioning, it just kept on bothering me," Johnson said. "It was just loose on me. I went to the doctor, got the MRI, and that's what it was. They told me to rest on it for six weeks. Just keep on resting on it until the swelling went down, then I had to start rehab."
A rehab that finally has an end in sight.
Johnson quickly went from star player to coach, attending every practice and working with his teammates.
"It was fun to coach a couple times," Johnson said. He had 80 tackles and 10 sacks as a junior, garnering attention from nearly every major college program in the country before deciding to go Irish back in June. "I remember, I would just help the guys make reads. Just teach them some moves like the coaches teaching them but I kind of have my own style. I know some of the guys are visual learners, so I walked them through the steps.
"I remember one time, I was telling a kid the offensive lineman was opening up his hips really soon, so I told him to make an up-and-under move, and he did it and made the sack."
Once the playoffs hit a few weeks ago, Johnson couldn't take not playing anymore, and couldn't attend practice. Lincoln advanced to the class 6-A state quarterfinals, before losing to West Salem, 28-21 on Saturday.
"The playoffs were hard for me," Johnson said, watching his prep career end from the sideline. "I really wanted to play, but I just couldn't."
Johnson plans on finally playing in Notre Dame's season opener next season at home against San Diego State. Head coach Charlie Weis and defensive line coach Jappy Oliver will be out to see him on Wednesday. Then Oliver and defensive coordinator Corwin Brown will be by the house on Dec. 4.
Johnson's mother was originally planning to send him back to Notre Dame for the team's banquet on Dec. 8, but that trip has been scratched. He has been on campus twice, once during the summer for camp, and for the Boston College game this season. There is a slight chance Johnson could come out again.
He was excited about the Irish's season-ending victory over Stanford, and kept a close eye on potential All-American defensive end Trevor Laws all fall.
"Trevor Laws' game is pretty complete," Johnson said. "I'm just amazed watching him. He has a motor. I don't even know how many moves he has. I was watching one game and learned a new move. His spin to the inside, I've never seen anyone do that before. It was pretty cool. He's obviously a great player. I just wonder how high he's going to get drafted."