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April 19, 2009

Notre Dame's Johnson earns high praise

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - It's the kind of quote Ethan Johnson should hang in his locker.

Because praise for a defensive lineman doesn't get much better than when it comes from a former Super Bowl champion and current Pro Bowler. That's what Justin Tuck offered after this weekend's Blue-Gold Game for Johnson, who finished Notre Dame's spring scrimmage with six tackles, two stops for loss and one sack.

"He plays like I do now," Tuck said. "The sky can be the limit for those guys and Ethan especially because he has the body to do it. He's a versatile player and a lot of guys in the football world love guys like him because they can do so many things with him."

Tuck attended the Blue-Gold Game as one of three honorary coaches alongside Reggie Brooks and Bertrand Berry. Jeff Faine missed the event due to a family illness. Notre Dame's defensive line didn't grab many headlines, but it deserved a few. A position that could be a question mark got a few answers Saturday.

Johnson, who played tackle and right defensive end, could be an exclamation mark. Offensive tackles and guards struggled to get a hand on the freshman, who finished last season with 3.5 sacks.

That sack figure should swell next season if Johnson continues at his current pace of improvement. He played his best football at season's end, posting a sack at USC and two against Hawaii. That form continued Saturday with a touch sack of quarterback Jimmy Clausen and penetration on running plays.

On one snap Johnson broke across the line, forced Robert Hughes to juke left, then pursued the big back toward the sideline. That's where Johnson dropped Hughes for no gain.

Coach Charlie Weis shares Tuck's opinion of Johnson, who offers Notre Dame's line a valuable and versatile part.

"I think that gives us a little more latitude when we're playing one of those teams that wants to just come out and pound it," Weis said. "Instead of having that small, quick defensive end right there you can get some more size out there on the edge and put another big body inside."

The line should expand by training camp when Kapron Lewis-Moore and Kerry Neal return to health. With Ian Williams and Hafis Williams on the rise, the Irish have options, albeit young ones.

"First of all, I think when you're going to be young and fairly inexperienced on the defensive line, the fresher you can keep them, the better," Weis said. "Because we're obviously going to be bringing a lot of heat."

The one veteran that stood out Saturday was Morrice Richardson, who pestered Clausen and Notre Dame's offensive line enough that guard Eric Olsen pushed the senior out of the quarterback's face after one play. Even a quarterback-centric head coach can appreciate a deep front four.

With Johnson holding down the lead, the line could deliver dividends next season.

At least a certain New York Giants player thinks so.

"The thing I see about these guys now, they're hungry," Tuck said. "They've got a lot of athletic ability. The thing that I saw from them, they want to learn. Whenever I said anything or whenever Bertrand said anything or Bryant Young … their eyes were wide open and they were soaking it all in."

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