It's been a long road back to the football field for Ethan Johnson. The Notre Dame freshman defensive end lost pretty much all of his final prep season at Lincoln High in Portland Ore., with a sprained ACL.
The rehab was tough, and the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Johnson even joined the school's swim team to help the process. His family has a background in competitive swimming, and as Johnson told the media, "it's really good for your joints."
To make sure he was 100 percent when he arrived at Notre Dame, Johnson declined an invitation to play in the U.S. Army All-American game. Finally in August, the moment arrived where the former five-star standout, would make his return to the gridiron.
Notre Dame's fall camp was here.
"I just thought, I'm just going to play my game," Johnson said of what he was thinking about while changing into his Irish practice gear for the first time. He signed with the Irish over places like Michigan, USC, and Oregon. "I just thought, I'm going to play my game and not even worry about it, I've got four years. That's what I kept on thinking. I've got four years."
Johnson said he was surprisingly not nervous for his first practice with the Notre Dame coaching staff on Aug. 8th, and he's thankful that NCAA rules make college programs ease their way into fall camp. Teams aren't allowed to practice in full pads until the fifth practice.
"I was really nervous for that day," Johnson stated. "I wasn't as nervous for the first day, because I was like I've been moving around without pads on. But the first day of pads, I was definitely the most nervous.
"After about the third day of full pads, I was finally fully comfortable. Since then, it sounds corny, but I just seek to try and improve everyday."
While Johnson keeps telling himself he has four years, he's definitely not going to have to wait that long until he plays a meaningful snap in a game. Johnson's play has garnered notice from the coaching staff, and he could get reps at defensive end in Notre Dame's season opener against San Diego St. on Sept. 6th.
"I wouldn't say he has been a pleasant surprise, but he has definitely put himself in the mix in a very short amount of time," head coach Charlie Weis said. "You look at him, and he is 275, and he looks like he weighs 250. So you can see just looking on the hoof, his growth potential body-wise is big. But right now, he has very good quickness and very good instincts and he has pass rush-ability. Anytime you have a defensive lineman who has pass rush-ability, they usually can find a way to get on the field before it is all said and done."
"Anytime the head coach gives a freshman a compliment, you've got to feel good about that," Johnson said. "I just try and stay focused in everything that I do, and try to ignore it. It's a great compliment and it's a pat on the back, and I hope I can just keep on improving everyday."
Johnson carries his weight very well, but it's come with a lot of work and dedication. He has weighed nearly the same since his junior year of high school.
"I don't try and worry about my weight, but my conditioning," Johnson began. "Like I set a goal to be able to do a lot of pushups, more than 100 pushups in a row, stuff like that. I did 110 in a row, and just try and keep my conditioning up."
Johnson deemed the first day of Notre Dame's fall camp as an amazing day for him. He got back something he loved.
Since then, Johnson's been all business in trying to get on the field. He has tried to absorb everything said to him from defensive line coach Jappy Oliver to every veteran player along the defensive line.
"The speed is definitely different," Johnson said. "When guys talk about speed from high school to college, and then from college to the NFL, I can't even imagine what it would be like in the NFL. It's definitely a pick up in speed. Day to day, I just try and improve. I try to take it day to day, it's kind of overwhelming at first when you get here, but I just took it day to day, practice to practice, and tried to improve every time I went out there.
"I feel like my technique has really improved in general. I've got a better feel for what I need to improve because stuff you can get away with in high school, you can't get away with here.
"I feel like my pass rush is my most practiced, because running, going against the run since I'm going up against bigger guys is a change, so the pass doesn't really necessarily change. I feel comfortable with all my moves, not totally comfortable because I feel like I want to improve, but I feel pretty comfortable with the pass rush."
And Johnson is feeling comfortable on the field again.