It’s been a frustrating season for Irish defensive end Ethan Johnson. The senior said earlier this week he feels healthier than he has all year heading into his final game at Notre Dame.
Johnson played in every game of his first three seasons in South Bend. He started this year as the senior statesmen on a defensive line that had as much experience as it did promising youth, but a high ankle sprain sustained in the opening quarter against Purdue kept him on crutches for more than a month. Johnson missed the next four games and when he did return to the field he did not play up to his own expectations.
“It’s frustrating. I’m not going to say embarrassing, but as a competitor it’s really irritating because you see plays on film of yourself and you’re like, ‘Who is that guy?’ That’s not what I worked all off-season for, to look like that,” Johnson said.
He finished the regular season with 14 tackles — five in the last eight games — the lowest total of his career. He had 18 takedowns his freshman year including two solo sacks in a Hawaii Bowl win that was a bit of a coming out party for the Oregon native. He followed that up with 31 and 34 tackles the next year to finish 2010 with 83 tackles and 12.5 sacks.
Johnson compared his body and his ankle to a big house with a shaky foundation. He said he felt himself losing battles he should have won during the last three games of this season. He was a step slower off the ball and had trouble beating opposing tackles to the outside edge. He said the hardest part about dealing with lowered expectations was not caving to the temptation to overexert himself on the next play after a frustrating result.
“You want to just go harder the next play, and with an injury you can’t do that all the time,” he said. “It’s not in your best interest to push it to the limit because the limit is reinjuring your ankle.”
Nearing the end of a 33-day layoff, Johnson says he is “110 percent” healthy and more than ready to take some shots at a Florida State offensive line that has had its own shaky foundation this season. The Seminoles conceded 36 sacks in the regular season and are currently ranked 99th in rushing offense among FBS teams.
That doesn’t mean the Irish are taking them lightly.
“I think Florida State has an awesome offense,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “They’re a problem at every position. We’re just going to do what we do.”
Johnson said he’s seen the chinks in the armor, but he’s also seen the armor. He said he has learned during his career at Notre Dame to focus on the best play from each player that he sees on film and expect that kind of effort on every down. He said if Florida State’s past ills in the trenches show up early in the Champs Sports Bowl he’ll be ready to exploit them, but he’s not counting on that.
“You have to focus on beating their strengths as well,” he said. “Teams play well against Notre Dame for whatever reason. That’s not to say Notre Dame is special, it’s just the way it is. Teams get more excited when there are more people watching, and we people watching every week.
“Guys can be down by thirty points in Notre Dame Stadium and they’re still giving their all, or they could be up by thirty points and they are trying to pour it on you. It’s different playing on the stage that we play on. It makes you more complete. Maybe at other places you might play thirty real snaps in a game. Here if you played 60, you played 60 real snaps.”
Johnson has one more chance to leave a lasting impression at Notre Dame with everyone watching.