Sept. 1, 2011

By Todd D. Burlage

Ask Ethan Johnson about his career to this point at Notre Dame and the determined look on his face as he answers shows it remains very much a work in progress.

From a carousel of coaches, to position changes, to big wins and bitter losses, the Irish senior has seen it all through his first three years on campus, and yet there is still so much more to come.

“As far as my first three seasons have gone, I don’t think anyone wants to come in and be around .500 going into their senior year,” Johnson says of his 21-17 win-loss record through his first three seasons. “We have a great chance to change that this year and I am really excited about the opportunities in front of us. This should be a special season. It needs to be a special season.”

Johnson’s enthusiasm stems from the successes the Irish enjoyed late last season, and a growing familiarity and appreciation for head coach Brian Kelly and his staff. Johnson isn’t the type of young man to criticize any of his previous coaches. But when he discusses the changes and improvements Kelly and Co. have brought to the program, it’s clear Johnson is more comfortable now than at any time in his career here.

“They just have shaped our lifestyle so differently from what it used to be,” Johnson says. “All of the changes they have implemented have been so positive.”

Slight schedule tweaks, a clearer practice routine and the addition of a training table that offers improved nutrition options and extended dining hours are three examples Johnson outlines as improvements within the team’s preparations.

The workdays begin a couple of hours later under coach Kelly’s watch, which affords Johnson and his teammates extra time to eat a healthy breakfast before morning weight training. Under the previous coaching staff, players would often be in the weight room by 6 a.m.

“I don’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. to eat breakfast, which I rarely did anyway,” Johnson offers. “I can wake up at 7 a.m., eat and then go and lift. Just a couple of hours like that in a day make a huge difference.”

And the positive results have been obvious. As a sophomore in 2009, Johnson dropped from 290 pounds to 270 pounds during the course of the season – almost a seven-percent loss in body weight.

“That season was rough on me,” Johnson remarks. “You need to eat.”

Last season with a new strength schedule and better nutrition options, Johnson actually went from 280 pounds at the start of the season to 292 by year’s end.

“These changes have really helped my productivity throughout the year,” Johnson says. “We lift a little bit later in the morning. We eat a lot earlier in the evening so I have time to get into a regular routine. It’s all made a big difference on my body.”

And those differences and improvements blanketed the entire team last season, but maybe covered no position group more than Johnson’s defensive line unit. To a man, the defensive linemen said their bodies held up far better last season than at any time in their careers.

In big part because of the play up front, Notre Dame’s defense allowed just 9.2 offensive points and barely 300 yards per game in its last five games of last season – against five teams with winning records. Project those numbers out through the entire season, and the Irish would have been a top-10 defensive unit nationally in nearly every key category.

Also in the last five games of 2010, Notre Dame went from a No. 81 national ranking in total defense to No. 50 at year’s end. And it went from No. 63 in scoring defense to No. 23 and from No. 82 in pass defense to No. 54, making it the most improved unit in the country during November and through the bowl season.

Need more evidence to better training and nutrition leading to better late-season results?

In 2008 and 2009 under the previous coaching staff, Notre Dame went 1-8 in its nine November games, in part because of fatigue and weight loss during the season. Last season under Kelly, the Irish won all three of their games in November and finished the season with a four-game winning streak – the longest such streak to finish a season since 1992 when Notre Dame won its last seven games.

“I just got worn down. I wasn’t used to the work volume that is necessary to perform at this level,” Johnson said of his freshman and sophomore campaigns. “I’m much more prepared now going into a season. My body never feels like that anymore, I’m just way stronger. You learn how to take better care of yourself.”

Since his baptism by fire as a freshman starter, to becoming the greybeard of the defensive line as a senior, Johnson has come full circle during his time at Notre Dame. Johnson has played in every game during his career, making him a logical leader and mentor for the younger guys.

“He’s a leader. He’s not a vocal leader but behind the scenes he’s a guy that is respected by everybody,” Kelly says. “He lives his life the right way. He’s a guy that we push out front. We find those guys, we push them out front and then we ask others to mirror. He’s one of them. If you want a vocal guy, you look to somebody different. But he’s clearly one of our senior leaders.”

“I’m not a huge rah-rah guy. It’s not really my personality,” adds Johnson. “But if I can help you get better by example or by competing against you, that’s what I want to do. I want to win just as badly as anyone who is the rah-rah type.”

Work hard, keep your mouth shut and earn respect through deeds and not words – that’s Johnson’s approach to football. All the way back to his freshman season in `08, Johnson had already adopted that style when he started four games and played in all 13, just one year after missing all but one game as a high school senior in Portland, Ore., with a knee injury. Beaten, battered and a long way from home, Johnson never complained and never took himself out of a game during his rookie year at Notre Dame, even if at times he wanted to.

“My body hurt so badly, I couldn’t even bend over to pick something up my back hurt so bad,” Johnson recalls. “It’s hard as a freshman to come in and mentally, physically and emotionally be able to take the strains that you need to be successful. I didn’t have the most productive year. I was definitely struggling but I just kept working. It’s not like I was a freshman All-American but I felt like I gained some good experience and definitely had a good time doing it.”

An injury to his abdomen to start the `09 season and a switch to nose tackle were the top storylines to Johnson’s sophomore year. Playing out of position and struggling to keep his strength and weight up, Johnson admitted that his sophomore season might have been his most trying.

Last season was Johnson’s best with 34 total tackles and five sacks on a greatly improved unit. But ask Johnson about his career to this point and you can still sense some dissatisfaction. Johnson came to Notre Dame as a legitimate NFL candidate and he’ll have one more season to try and make his case. Johnson starts the season as the team leader in career sacks with 12.5.

“Of course I don’t want to stop playing football after college. If I get a chance to play in the NFL, that would be awesome,” says Johnson, quickly deflecting any attention away from himself. “But I’ve got an opportunity to maybe win a national championship right now and that’s what I’m focused on. This season isn’t about personal pursuits, this is about team goals.”

And if a professional football career isn’t in the cards for Johnson, a successful occupation in banking or investments likely is for this finance major. Johnson has wisely put education ahead of NFL dreams during his time at Notre Dame, and he’s on pace to graduate on time in a high-paying field. You can take the man out of Notre Dame but you can’t take Notre Dame out of the man.

“I feel like wherever I go and whatever I do I’m going to be successful because Notre Dame has taught me to be that way,” Johnson believes. “I just feel like I have gained so much at this place and I have changed in so many positive ways. I’ve matured so much. I don’t think I am as closed-minded, and I have definitely built up a healthy amount of work ethic here.”

As for this season – Johnson’s last at Notre Dame – familiarity breeds content, and contentment breeds confidence. Johnson is quite sincere when he talks about winning a national title.

“I feel like all the pieces are in place,” he says. “We don’t have to adjust to a new system again, guys have been around. We have good leadership, guys are now in the right positions to make plays, and the young guys are really competing with the established guys, and that is just driving everybody forward. Competition brings wins, and winning is what this season is all about.”