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Ethan Johnson leads defensive line

Andrew Owens | Thursday, November 17, 2011

He played in each of the first 43 games of his career, but early in his senior campaign defensive end Ethan Johnson hit a roadblock and missed four consecutive contests due to an ankle injury.

As a senior leader and rock on the defense, Johnson kept the issue in perspective while trying to get back on the field.

“[Missing the four games] was rough,” he said. “Having not missed any games due to injury up until this point I didn’t think or want it to be this year. If I could choose a year it probably wouldn’t be my senior year to be injured. But you don’t get that choice. Things happen and it’s a part of the game. It made me realize what gameday is like, just not playing.”

Instead of participating in his regular routine and preparing for Saturdays, Johnson was forced to trade time with coaches and players for time with the training staff.

“I had never been injured before like this, so I really didn’t know how fast I’d bounce back or how fast I could heal,” he said. “Our trainers told me what was expected for the injury, so I just took it a day at a time. I really just didn’t know. You can be hopeful you’ll be back sooner than expected, but if you don’t feel good, then you don’t. There’s no reason to come back early and reinjure yourself. I didn’t want to do that, but at the same time I definitely pushed it.”

Johnson, Notre Dame’s active sacks leader with 12, returned to action Saturday in a 45-21 Irish victory over Maryland. Midway through the first quarter, Johnson worked his way around a Terrapin offensive lineman and stuffed fullback Tyler Cierski. While it was the only play a limited Johnson made in his return, it still felt good, he said.

“It was a nice play,” Johnson said. “The left tackle is a good player, just looking at him before the game I thought he was the best lineman. We thought he was their best lineman, so it was good to make a play against him. I definitely wish I had driven [the fullback back more].

Not being able to participate in the game he loves with the teammates he loves has given Johnson a deeper appreciation for the opportunity to play at Notre Dame, he said.

“It felt good to be back out there and I had a lot of fun and it was great to be out there with the guys,” he said. “I really missed that — running out there for the first drive of the game and I’m never going to take that for granted. I feel like I never did take that for granted. It’s a very special place to play here and I’ve really enjoyed it here.”

Passing it on

Johnson, who has played under two coaching staffs and has transitioned from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 before ultimately returning to the 3-4, has played a key role as a mentor to freshman defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch, two players who were called into duty when Johnson was injured. His return also eases the burden on the rest of the defensive line, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said.

“It’s just great to have him back,” Diaco said. “He’s a fundamental technician. We got so many reps under his belt on the techniques that play within our defense and it’s nice then the other guys can have opportunities to cut it loose. They’re not having to play three quarters or the whole game. They can take and pick their moments.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly said Johnson has been key in helping the underclassmen buy into the second-year coach’s plan.

“All of our seniors have had an impact in the direction and expectations,” Kelly said. “When I say direction, [I mean] my voice, and how we want to do things. Certainly [Johnson] had an influence in making sure the program continues to grow in whatever we put in front of him.”

Senior defensive tackle Sean Cwynar said Johnson is a positive influence on the entire defensive line, not just freshmen.

“Coming in with Ethan — he’s a great player and one of the things he brings to the table is all the experience he’s shown on the field,” Cwynar said. “He’s always there trying to help the freshmen out and he’s always trying to help me in a certain area, so I think Ethan is one of the main leaders on the defensive line. He means a lot to us.”

Junior linebacker Manti Te’o echoed Cwynar’s sentiments and said Johnson is committed to preparing the right way.

“He’s definitely the veteran of the defensive line,” Te’o said. “He knows what’s going on. He knows how to practice and he knows what we expect of him so from that standpoint he plays a very important role.”

Winding down

When Johnson runs out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel Saturday for the final time, it will be a bittersweet moment, but he said he is anxious to move on to new opportunities.

“I feel like I’m going to miss this place but at the same time, I’m ready to be finished,” Johnson said. “It’s been a long road. It’s pretty tough here academically and football-wise too with all the coaching changes and I’ve made some great relationships here and it’s got to end eventually. I’ll be finished in December with all my credits. I’m just ready for whatever’s next and I’ve had a great time here and I’ll always remember how great it was.”

Even with the season and a collegiate career coming to a close, Johnson does not allow his mind to drift into endless what-if scenarios, but he did say what a potential best-case scenario would be.

“First pick of the [NFL] draft,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I really haven’t put much thought into that — especially since I was injured … You work so hard for your senior year and I really haven’t thought about it and won’t think about it until the end of the year.

“I would love to play in the NFL and the higher the better, but I haven’t thought about it. If I get to go play, that would be awesome, if I don’t get picked up, then I don’t get picked up. That’s life.”

Johnson said he does not know what his personal mark on the program is, but the senior class is trying to complete a strong finish to the season and pave the way for future success at Notre Dame.

“Other people can define [my legacy],” he said. “Hopefully I had a positive impact on this place and I had a lot of fun. I feel like I’ve done my best while I was here.

“I feel like I just want to finish strong and finish the way we did last year. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to do that. All the teams were going to play are good teams and battle-tested teams, even if their records don’t show it. We know we’re going to get a team’s best, especially Boston College.”