Emergence Imminent

Our Pre-Camp Assessment of junior defensive end Ethan Johnson.

15 years from now, when a 35-year-old Ethan Johnson has likely concluded his playing career, the Portland native could have a choice to make: pursue a business career or continue the involuntary internship he began during his first three seasons of college football.

At the ripe age of 20 heading into his junior season, Johnson will line up in his third defense, at his third position, for his third defensive coordinator and third position coach.

If he's not yet ready to tutor others at the position, he will be someday.

"I feel like it's the system I've always wanted to be in, the 3-4," Johnson explained midway through the spring session. "I'm not extremely fast; I'm not huge, I'm not a 3-technique, I'm not a DT. I'm just excited to get head up and smash some people."

Though admittedly miscast, Johnson performed admirably as an undersized 3-technique defensive tackle last season. A true sophomore in '09, Johnson's numbers measured favorably with former program greats (numbers highlighted below) at the same stage of development.

The battles, won and lost, have better prepared him for his upperclass seasons.

"I feel like being able to play the 3-technique and a lot of different techniques on the line has really helped me with this new system," Johnson said of the base defense new coordinator Bob Diaco affectionately refers to as the "Base-50".

After a second straight November collapse, Johnson and his defensive teammates were under fire for the better part of the off-season, then forced to learn Diaco's scheme while managing head coach Brian Kelly's breakneck practice pace.

The pair preached a "no-crease" defense in the spring. Fall of '09 offered anything but.

"I feel like every defensive coordinator wants to have a no-crease defense; it just means no running back has a clear crease to the open field," Johnson stated. "I feel like they have a system that will do that."

Good Company

Irish fans tend to overvalue the next big thing. The University's rich football history begs for comparison to past greats, and after finishing with a flourish in the final month of his freshman season (eight tackles and three sacks in his final three outings), Johnson was hurriedly anointed a future star.

Though his sophomore year numbers rank among the best for a player of his class over the last 20 seasons, Johnson still fell short of unrealistic expectations and the defense as a whole fell short of competence. A solid six-game mid-season effort by he and teammates Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ian Williams, and Darius Fleming was masked by a rough start on the national stage at Michigan as well as the well-documented disastrous final four outings.

Blossoming Juniors

Like Johnson, Anthony Weaver won a starting job during his true freshman season (1998). Both players became full-time contributors as 18-year-old football neophytes, asked to tussle with a host of 21, 22 and 23-year-old offensive linemen without the benefit of a redshirt-freshman season – a time most collegiate linemen spend toiling in the weight room and on the scout team before being thrown to the fray.

Like Johnson, Weaver played in both the 3-4 and 4-3 base defense over the course of his Irish career. Johnson's first two seasons compare favorably with Weaver and fellow freshman contributor, Bryant Young (who operated exclusively at defensive tackle):

  • Ethan Johnson (2008-09): 25 games/15 starts – 50 tackles (11.5 for loss), 7.5 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick.
  • Anthony Weaver (1998-99): 22 games/19 starts – 52 tackles (8 for loss), 2 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble.
  • Bryant Young (1990-91): 19 games/8 starts (all as a sophomore), 58 tackles, (10 for loss), 4 sacks, 2 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries.

The key to the comparison, of course, is the second act put forth by both Weaver and Young, who both reached all-star status as upperclassmen:

  • Weaver (00-01): 22 games/22 starts – 102 tackles (34 for loss), 15 sacks, 3 interceptions, 8 passes defended, 5 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery. Weaver was named consensus second-team All-American and a first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens.
  • Young (92-93): 22 games/22 starts, 118 tackles (12.5 for loss), 14 sacks, 2 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries. Young was named a consensus second-team All-America as a senior and became the No. 7 overall draft pick in 1994, playing his entire career with the San Francisco 49ers.

If Johnson's final two seasons approach those of his predecessors, the Irish defense will no longer fold when the winds turn cold in South Bend.

Johnson's 2010 Outlook

Tailor-made for his new position as a 3-4 defensive end; secure in his role as a growing voice for his line mates; seasoned by six collective months of abuse at the hands of opposing running games – Ethan Johnson is ready to break out next fall.

The Irish defense is looking for leadership; Johnson already carries himself as such:

"Every day is a step, whether you need to change some things…it's always a working process," Johnson said after a particularly solid spring practice in the rain. "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."

Johnson's mindset made his adjustment to the new scheme far less challenging than that of his previous change from the edge of the line to its interior. The junior-to-be now speaks confidently of the intricacies of the defensive line.

"It looks a little bit differently, the (opposing) blocking schemes, and there are new blocking schemes I have to learn," he began. "But I've played the 1 and the 2, the 2I and the 3. There's just one technique I haven't played, the 4 (and the 4I, he added later), so every other technique I've played along the line."

(If your eyebrows just raised, imagine the live interview.)

"It's not too much different," Johnson offered with a laugh, realizing he had lost more than a few members of his audience. "When I play 1 (technique) or 0 (zero), it translates to a 4 because it's head up; or a 2, because it translates to a 4, it's just that I'm playing with a little bit quicker guys at the 4.

"I'm not a defensive guru," he continued, "but I'm trying to get the hang of it."

When I pointed out that if he continues at this rate, Johnson could indeed become a guru, the affable junior noted jokingly: "I'll know every technique known to man."

Better to master one.

Johnson's Best of 2009

  • Nevada: Staked to a 21-0 lead, the Irish defense was faced with a 4th-and-1 at its own 19-yard line. With the Irish interior of Ian Williams and Ethan Johnson taking up three interior blocks, a blitzing Toryan Smith shot through the gap to stop Wolf Pack runner Vai Taua for a one-yard loss and turnover on downs.

  • Michigan: Johnson made three strong plays over the course of the frustrating contest, first penetrating the Wolverines O-line to record a tackle-for-loss on a late 2nd quarter reverse; later pursuing down the line of scrimmage to limit elusive QB Tate Forcier to a 4-yard gain (that was set to break for much more); and finally showing tremendous penetration to allow a clear path for Harrison Smith to stuff RB Brandon Minor on a 3rd and 2 run early in the 4th Quarter.

  • Michigan State: Johnson made the Play of the Day powering between the Spartans center and right guard to block Brett Swenson's late 3rd Quarter PAT attempt, allowing the Irish to maintain a 3-point lead. The blocked extra point indirectly won the contest for the Irish as the Spartans would have attempted the game-winning field goal on their final drive rather than attempt to score a touchdown, trailing by 3 with under a minute to play.

  • Washington: Leading 16-14 with the Huskies threatening at the ND 34-yard line, Johnson stunted outside and closed on QB Jake Locker in the pocket to force a fumble with a blind side hit (recovered by John Ryan). Later in the contest, Johnson made two stops on the 8-play goal line stand, first combining with Harrison Smith to stop Carlos Polk for a loss on 1st and Goal from the 1-yard line; then after an Irish personal foul, again nailing Polk for no gain on another 1st and Goal from the 1. The Irish defense held the Huskies to a field goal, keeping the deficit under one score late (27-22)

  • Washington State: Johnson dominated the overmatched Cougars early, overwhelming left guard Zack Williams with inside penetration. The resulting tackle-for-loss by Brian Smith was wiped out due to a hold of Johnson by the beaten Williams. Johnson later sacked Jeff Tuel for a loss of 9 yards, knifing between LT and LG to bury the Cougars QB.

Johnson's Moments to Forget in 2009

  • Washington: Johnson (along with Ian Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore) was controlled at the point of attack on a designed QB draw from the Irish 5-yard line. Huskies quarterback Jake Locker strolled in for the game-opening score.

  • Navy: Inexplicably cast in a backup/rotation role in favor of a smaller front four, Johnson recorded 0 tackles during a game in which a triple-option opponent rambled for 343 rushing yards, including an astounding 158 of which were gained by fullback Vince Murray through the heart of the Irish interior.

  • Connecticut: Johnson clawed and scratched his way to six total tackles, including 1.5 for lost yardage, but was ultimately engulfed at the point of attack by the massive, experienced Huskies front wall. In the game's decisive second overtime, Huskies tailbacks Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon rambled over the right side of the Irish defense for gains of 9, 1 (for a 1st down on 3rd and 1), and 11 yards en route to the game-winning 4-yard score. Johnson was pancaked twice (once by a double-team) and knocked to the ground a third time on four Connecticut game-ending runs.

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