In the case of his teammate, Ian Williams, that is exactly what happened.
"I told him when he first came here, when I was a sophomore and he was a freshman, I told him, ‘Ethan, you're better than me. I'm telling you right now. You are right now, and you will be. I just want you to work hard, I want you to do what I know you can do. I've seen you do what you can do, so just do it every play,'" Williams said.
Drawing back to the exchange, the freshman returned the favor, citing ways that each player could compliment the other.
"That was a while ago, but I do remember him saying that I had a lot of potential and he just wanted to see me work hard and do well," Johnson said of the conversation. "I said the same thing to him, I was like, ‘we have different skill sets and I want to see you do well and get some tackles for loss this year.'"
After speaking to Johnson, his humble, even-tempered manner is instantly noticeable. That is why he is patiently awaiting his opportunity to become one of the young unit's leaders despite his early playing time. After all, he feels that he still has a great deal to learn about the position.
"I don't want to be one of those guys who starts talking too early so you are hypocritical," he said. "I mean, yes, I did play last year, but at the same time I realize that I'm not the big cheese, I don't know everything yet. I feel like when I'm older and I've been in the system a little while longer, and I have more playing experience then I'll try to take the reigns a little bit more. Anything that I know, that I can help with Hafis [Williams] or Kapron [Lewis-Moore], I'm more than willing to help them because I definitely got help from Pat Kuntz last year so anything that I can do to help them I'll do."
One person who is now getting his first impression of Johnson as a player is new Irish defensive line coach Randy Hart, who recalls of the freshman's high-school days in the Pacific Northwest. His new position coach had nothing but positives to describe Johnson, but highlighted his experience last year as a foundation to build upon.
"I think he's working hard," Hart said of Johnson. "I think he's got a tremendous upside. He played a lot of snaps last year and anytime you have a young guy who played a lot of snaps, you look for him to become better. I think he's done a nice job of putting himself in a leadership position, but we've still got a long way to go, so we'll keep working."
Although there has been a certain buzz around the Irish program with Johnson's emergence, he tries not to think about his ability too much, instead remaining focused on the process of continual improvement.
"It feels good to get out there and hit some people in the backfield," Johnson said. "It's practice, I just try to take every day with a grain of salt and try to build on it. I don't get too hyped over myself over one practice, because if I don't do it the next day, then what was the day before?"
If there is one aspect that Hart and the remainder of the coaching staff has clearly discovered about Johnson, it's that they recognize his adaptability and plan to exploit it during the spring and next season.
"Very," was the word Hart said when asked how versatile Johnson could be. "He can do whatever he chooses to do. You love his ability; he plays inside, outside. He's a guy that has a great base to build off of as he gets more and more experience and he learns more and more about the game. He's not scratched the surface as far as the mental yet. He's done a nice job with the physical, but as far as knowing the formations, knowing protections, knowing what the offense is doing, he's playing off of visual keys right now. When he gets his brain going, learning what the offense is trying to do to him, he's going to be a great player."
It's because of this flexibility that head coach Charlie Weis has opted to move Johnson and Lewis-Moore along the defensive line, depending on the package. Unveiled for the first time at Saturday's practice, Johnson was the right defensive end in the defense's base package. However, when the Irish go to their nickel package, the freshman will move inside to play a three-technique position.
"This is the first week we've put him out there in base defense, but in nickel he moves inside anyway," Weis said. "So both he and Kapron, I don't know if you noticed but the first nickel, he and Kapron were the first inside guys, so they are both playing defensive end in base but when we go to nickel, we get them inside both potential three techniques and then get more edge pressure when we get speed rushers in there."
Thus far, the reviews of Johnson's performance in both schemes have been positive. According to Hart, chances are the freshman will be constantly shifting along the defensive line this season, depending on where the coaching staff feels he is aiding the squad the most.
"Ideally, wherever he would help the team," Hart said of his preferred position for Johnson. "That's his too; he said he'll go wherever he wants, obviously and wherever he can help the team in whatever game situation we're in, he'll be around in different places."
If you ask Ethan Johnson, however, he doesn't mind the decision to switch his positions throughout the season. In fact, the process will be one of the first steps needed to fulfill one of his personal goals — to acquire the ability to play every position along the defensive line.
"Honestly, I want to be able to play, by the time I get out of here, every position on the [defensive] line," Johnson said. "That's a personal goal of mine. … By the time that I'm a senior, if I know how to play nose, three-technique, two-I, five and six, that would be nice."