Free Spirit

Ethan Johnson has found an early comfort level in his 3-4 defensive end role.

For Ethan Johnson, Wednesday's supposed "braving" of the April elements amounted to much ado about nothing.

Then again, if you were a 20-year-old defensive lineman entering his third spring practice session under the tutelage of your third overall defensive coordinator…and your third position coach…in your third defensive scheme…at your third DL position, well you'd probably accept rain as a mild inconvenience, too. Or in Johnson's case, embrace it.

"I love the rain, I'm from Portland Oregon," Johnson offered following Wednesday's practice. "Most of my practices have been in the rain so I love it out here."

At one with the elements, the junior-to-be hopes to become equally comfortable with his role as a defensive end in the team's base 3-4 defense. Johnson's first two seasons in the program placed him in the role of a 4-3 defensive end as a freshman, and then as a three-technique defensive tackle last season.

His most recent position tweak offered less of an obstacle than those prior.

"Definitely," Johnson answered when comparing this spring's transition to last year's move inside. "Especially since I didn't play much defensive end (at ND); I was a three-technique (DT) taking on the ‘fatties' inside."

Catching Up in the Numbers' Game

Johnson enters his true junior season with 50 total tackles to his credit. For the sake of comparison, four-year starter and eventual first-round draft pick Anthony Weaver had notched 52 total tackles at the same career marker (Johnson notched more tackles-for-loss than Weaver through two seasons, 11.5 vs. 8, though EJ had the benefit of three extra games played).

But statistics don't concern Johnson. Well, one might, but the drawback of that singular number is less relevant thanks to the position switch.

"I feel like I can definitely rush the passer a little easier," Johnson responded when asked if the move offered him the freedom of space. "Trying to rush a guard and center at 265 pounds – it's a little tough for them to respect your power rush," he added half-jokingly of last year's effort on the interior of the D-Line.

But that trying season inside afforded Johnson a teaching point for the duration of his football career.

"It definitely made me play better, because I had to keep lower pad level and be a lot quicker off the ball, but I feel like I'm more fit for this position.

"I couldn't really set up too many counter moves (last year) because I didn't have a power rush, so I was all speed in some games."

Timing is Everything

The scheme change occurred at a collective career juncture that (coincidentally) benefited the defensive line personnel as a whole. Johnson has two years of eligibility remaining; fellow DE Kapron Lewis-Moore three; quality backup Sean Cwynar, unproven Hafis Williams, and converted OT turned-DE Lane Clelland each have three seasons remaining as well.

Senior nose tackle Ian Williams is allowed to return to the role that provided the most productive seasons of his Irish career.

"I feel like we're all athletic, fast, all pretty smart guys, and we all love football," Johnson stated of his teammates. "I know Ian's played in a defense like this before and I know he's going to have a great season."

Williams totaled 45 tackles, including six for lost yardage in a backup role (two starts) as a true freshman playing the nose in Corwin Brown's 3-4 scheme (2007). He had just two tackles for loss as a 4-3 NT last season.

Will Johnson (or Lewis-Moore) occasionally find himself inside in 2010, depending on the defensive package?

"I don't know how much we'll be doing that," Johnson stated before adding with a smile, "It's ‘like Day 5'…I don't really know, but I'm excited to take on whatever I can. I know I know how to play a 3-technique, so I'd be comfortable doing that."

Whether at home in the 3-4 or battling for every inch in the 4-3, Johnson never failed to give great effort on a defensive snap. That approach has helped him adjust to a trying spring.

"As coach said, he feels like we made progress (from Practice No. 4 to Practice No. 5). Every day is (offers) a step, whether you need to change some things…it's always a working process. We'll never be there. Even if you win a lot of games it doesn't mean you're playing great.

"It's constant progression. A lot of guys are in the right mindset to do that."

Quarterbacks take heed: one of those guys won't have to deal with the "fatties" inside for 60 minutes on 12 football Saturdays this season. Johnson could be coming soon to a backfield near you.


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