And now we can add seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore to the growing list of Notre Dame players on pre-season award watch lists after the defensive end classmates were both placed on the Hendrick Award watch list on Tuesday.
Awarded annually for the last 10 years, the Ted Hendricks Award is given out each season to the best defensive end in the country.
Both Johnson and Lewis-Moore came to Notre Dame in the heralded recruiting class of 2008 that was put together by Charlie Weis on the heels of the disastrous 2007 season. While this pair of starting defensive ends came to Notre Dame in the same class, they both took different paths to get to where they are.
Johnson came to Notre Dame as a 5-star recruit with offers from virtually every major program and was one of the cornerstones of Charlie Weis’s strongest recruiting class that finished ranked #2 in the country by Rivals in February 2008. Johnson committed to Notre Dame early in the process and remained solid in his commitment throughout the rather forgettable 2007 season. He was also seen as a prototypical defensive end in a 3-4 defense because of his size making him one of the biggest recruiting wins for Weis in his time at Notre Dame.
Lewis-Moore meanwhile came in with less fanfare and was a last minute addition to the class after originally committing to Texas A&M. While Johnson was seen as a perfect fit for the 3-4 defense run by then defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, Lewis-Moore was seen as more of tweener – too big for outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but too small for defensive end.
Once Lewis-Moore got on campus, however, the Texas native start to fill out his rather large frame and has grown into the profile that Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco look for in defensive ends in the Notre Dame defense.
Johnson on the other hand had the size to see the playing field from day one and has been a mainstay on the Irish defensive line since arriving on campus in the summer of 2008. After bouncing around under the previous coaching staff between defensive end and tackle while Weis played musical defensive coordinators over his final three seasons, Johnson settled in at defensive end last season and began to make his presence felt. Johnson finished the season with a career high 5.0 sacks and 34.0 tackles a year ago.
Lewis-Moore took a little longer to see the field and actually redshirted in 2008 before forcing his way into the starting lineup in 2009 – a position he has not let go of since. Like Johnson, Lewis-Moore made his presence felt last season posting an impressive 62 tackles from his defensive end position including a career high 10 in the loss to Navy in the Meadowlands.
Both Johnson and Lewis-Moore enter the 2011 season as the unquestioned starters at the end positions for Notre Dame, but for the first time in their starting careers, both will have considerable depth and talent behind them pushing them for playing time.
Notre Dame brought in an impressive haul along the defensive line this past February and much like Johnson forced his way onto the field in 2008, a pair of the much bally-hooed incoming frosh could force their way onto the field this season.
Aaron Lynch enrolled early at Notre Dame and turned a lot of heads in the Blue Gold Game no matter how much Kelly tried to downplay expectations for the exciting freshman. And if anyone has seen any pictures of Stephon Tuiit since the beginning of the fall camp it’s easy to see why many think he’ll see the field early – the kid looks like a returning senior, not an incoming freshman. Then there’s Kona Schwenke – another recruit who came to Notre Dame as an undersized end but blossomed in the weight room much like Lewis-Moore.
With all of the depth behind them, it’s entirely possible that both Johnson and Lewis-Moore spend a little less time on the field this year as Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston try to keep their linemen fresh. At the same time, playing fewer snaps but being fresher throughout games should allow both to be more effective while they are on the field.
No Notre Dame player has won the award since its inception 10 years ago, but this year Notre Dame is just one of three schools to have multiple candidates for the award along with USC and North Carolina.