Notre Dame football: Schwenke adds heft, experience to Irish defensive wall

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

ARLINGTON, Texas

Baseball sluggers hit home runs.

Defensive linemen absorb two blocks and clear the road for a teammate to stuff a fourth-and-one run.

Different sports. Same feeling.

Oklahoma's first drive of the third quarter last week. Fourth-and-one near midfield, quarterback Blake Bell, the Belldozer — all 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds of him — tried to do what he does best: Get the tough yards. The play went toward Kona Schwenke, who was filling in for Sheldon Day on Notre Dame's defensive line.

Schwenke, a 6-foot-4, 303-pound senior, found football's version of the sweet spot. He destroyed Bell's two-man convoy and allowed Ishaq Williams and Carlo Calabrese to smother the attempt and give the Irish the ball.

"It's fourth down-and-one, we just want to get penetration," Schwenke explained. "We just buckled down. The play-calling from the coaches, it was just a perfect play.

"We kinda thought it was going to come to our side. (Oklahoma players) were bunched up on our side. We watched a lot of film. They love to run to the boundary (Schwenke's side). We figured it was coming there."

Unlike linemates Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Schwenke isn't on any NFL team's first-round radar. With just seven career tackles in his first three seasons, the bushy-haired big guy from Hauula, Hawaii, has followed a blue-collar path of gradual development into a key contributor this season.

Originally ticketed as a backup to Nix at nose guard this season, Schwenke was pressed into a starting role in place of the injured Sheldon Day (ankle), who mans the "stud" position in Notre Dame's defense, a cross between tackle and end.

Schwenke had three tackles against Michigan State and two against the Sooners. His increased production has come with a workload volume that has been amped up significantly.

"There is a learning curve there because the responsibilities there change quite a bit," Irish head coach Brian Kelly assessed of Schwenke's performance. "He's done a pretty good job.

"We had some missed assignments for him, and here's the biggest difference: The volume. His volume jump was huge, and then you're getting tired. We've got to get him out. We're getting less productivity, so I think that's been the biggest jump.

"He's been able to settle into the role relative to what we're asking him to do, but we have to be much more careful with the amount of reps that he's getting. That's probably been the biggest concern, more so than fitting into the stud position versus the nose position."

All indications are that Day should be back to full strength Saturday night when the Irish take on Arizona State in the Shamrock Series. That means Schwenke can move back to the middle.

"He's been doing pretty well," Nix said of his teammate. "Offenses aren't trying to run up the gut.

"He's had a workload. There's no fall-off much, at all, on the d-line.

"Coach teaches us all the positions. I might be the only one on the d-line who doesn't get moved to d-end. Coach makes sure we know every position on the d-line. That's why there's really no drop-off."

A phenomenon the Irish have faced this season is that opposing offenses have directed the bulk of their attacks to the perimeter, trying to take the one proven entity of the Notre Dame defense out of the equation.

"If teams try to maneuver around our defensive line, all we can do is stick to our game plan and just go out there and ball-out," Schwenke said. "We feel a lot of teams are trying to move the ball outside. We just have to be prepared for whatever they try against us."

That strategy has worked. Overall production of the leaders (Nix, 19 tackles; Tuitt, 15 tackles, 2 sacks) is down and the numbers the Irish give up a game (364 yards, 24 points) are less than impressive. Notre Dame has come up with just four turnovers — three interceptions and a fumble.

"All the little things we did last year, they aren't carrying over to this year," Schwenke said. "We needed the reminder (when Kelly showed tape of those 'little things'). It gives us confidence. We could do it. We just have to make it happen."

Schwenke has done his part. He has expanded his role and responded to the challenge.

"Coach Kelly has his saying: Next man in," Schwenke said. "Our job is to make sure the backups are ready at any time.

"(The workload) was hard at first, but you get into a rhythm and start to get used to it. I'm just getting used to the tempo of playing more than two or three snaps. It's me getting into a rhythm. I get a lot more opportunities to get out there and prove myself."

Adjusting to a new position along the line, and an expanded role, hasn't kept Schwenke up at night.

"Last year, I played strictly nose guard," he said. "Moving to 'stud,' you've gotta be on your job and study your plays. You have to get to know the defense well and be ready to step in wherever.

"When I first got here (as a freshman), I started out playing d-end. I was moving around, helping where I could help the team. I'm pretty familiar with all three spots. It's not really a big deal.

"When I'm playing d-end, it's more of a one-on-one block — you beating the tackle. As I moved into nose, that's where I found out I had to be more physical, pick up my weight a little. You tend to get more double-teams in the middle."

Doesn't matter. Football is football. Block. Tackle.

And live for the feeling that comes with stuffing the fourth-and-one.

Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke (96) chases Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (98) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in Ann Arbor, Mich. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER