It's possible that the Notre Dame coaching staff and fan base are asking too much of a 19-year old sophomore.
- To cross-train at two positions, both of which rank among the most demanding in the sport
- To make both his classmates and the team's elder statesmen around him better with consistent play that demands double-team attention
- To collapse the pocket with a long-forgotten interior pass rush
- To help repair a two-year leak in the team's run defense
Whether or not that's too heavy a load is debatable. What isn't in dispute is the essential development and importance of Ethan Johnson to the 2009 defense at a time in his career when most defensive linemen should be learning the college game.
Johnson is one of many sophomores and redshirt freshmen on which the Irish BCS hopes hinge this season. A slightly above average effort from Johnson in his first season as a full-time player would likely help land the Irish a solid bowl bid – a trip to Orlando for New Year's. But Johnson appears capable of much more, and if he can approach the expectations thrust upon him as a sophomore the Irish defense could finally rise to an acceptable level (such as that of the '05 unit), or to the rarefied air of a true BCS contender – a tier seen only sporadically in South Bend over the last fifteen seasons.
Johnson's Season Outlook:I'd be surprised if Johnson isn't effective in September as both an interior pocket presence and run-stopper when he moves outside to the edge. The challenge for the sophomore is that he emerge as a force beyond mid-season: that he can set the tone in the home trap game against BC (a letdown week regardless of the outcome vs. USC seven days prior); that he can hold up during a trip to Pittsburgh and what should be a run-heavy offense with freshman Dion Lewis in November; and finally that he have something left vs. Stanford and physical RB Toby Gerhart in the fourth quarter of the season's final contest...these are the challenges a talented, but unproven defensive line faces, and Johnson is its player with the greatest room for growth.
Perhaps the most important single element to Johnson's '09 season is one that's completely out of his control – the emergence of a reliable backup, such as redshirt freshman Hafis Williams or Brandon Newman inside along with junior pass rusher Kerry Neal and unproven junior Emeka Nwankwo on the ends. A "third" starter at both tackle and end will afford Johnson fresh legs in the fourth quarter and allow him to use his athletic ability in key pass-rushing situations.
The Irish fourth quarter defense came up short last season – an unavoidable occurrence when a team's starters play too many snaps and too many minutes over the course of 60 minutes and 12 games.
There's a chance Ethan Johnson and stardom collide a year earlier than expected in '09, but he'll need plenty of help along the way.
Johnson's Best Moments of 2008:
- Washington: With the Irish leading 7-0 after their first possession, Johnson and SLB Harrison Smith combined to sack Huskies QB Ronnie Fouch for an 8-yard loss. The Huskies punted two plays later which led to a Golden Tate touchdown run on the ensuing series and the Irish never looked back en route to a 33-7 road victory.
- USC: The freshman posted his best statistical effort of 2008 vs. one of the nation's top teams, totaling five solos and a sack. After initially being blocked to the ground, Johnson recovered to sack Trojans QB Mark Sanchez at the ND 18-yard line, limiting USC to a field goal with less than 30 seconds remaining in the half.
- Hawaii: Two sacks in a dominant first half effort – one on a crushing hit that illustrated Johnson as a future force; the second a takedown that can be attributed to Johnson's competitive nature, as the freshman never gave up on an extended (scramble) play. A big hit and dominant pass rush move will get a player noticed, but the best pass rushers pile up the majority of their sacks through sheer will and determination after the initial block is shed.
Johnson's Points of Emphasis for 2009:
- The Irish defense hasn't had a playmaker along its front four since Victor Abiamiri graduated in '06. Johnson has the potential to fill that role if he can stay disciplined in the scheme and read his keys, especially vs. screens and delays...an aspect of the game in which the Irish front seven has struggled to defend in recent seasons.
- What graduated defensive tackle Pat Kuntz lacked in skill he made up for with desire, hard work, and leadership. The sky's the limit for Johnson over the next three years but the level of his competitiveness will hold the key to success in a season (probably the last season) in which he'll sometimes be overmatched vs. a host of fifth-year senior offensive linemen: the initial block cannot signal the end to Johnson's involvement in a given play.