Notre Dame football: Schwenke making the most of his chance

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- To this day, Tamara Bartlett insists if Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly hadn’t suspended her son, Stephon Tuitt, a game for sleeping through class two seasons ago, she would have.

The unintended domino that tipped that night at Purdue, however, was that Kona Schwenke’s intended redshirt year was sacrificed in a 38-10 pounding of the host Boilermakers for a cameo that produced zero tackles.

Starting defensive end Ethan Johnson went down with an injury on the very first series of that game and spent the rest of the game with his foot in a protective boot. And with no Tuitt to fill in, Schwenke became part of the rotation.

The Hauula, Hawaii, resident would see minimal action in two other games late in the year, finishing his sophomore season with no tackles — or recordable statistics of any kind — and no chance of regaining a fifth year of eligibility.

He is making the most, though, of his final college go-round, even if that should have unfolded in 2014. After recording a modest seven tackles over his first three seasons at ND combined, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound nose guard/defensive end has eight this season in eight games, four of which have been starts.

“We're getting a lot of favorable reports on him being able to play next year as well, at the next level (NFL),” Kelly said. “He's a kid who is lean at 305 pounds right now. They're hard to find at 6-4. And he's played well for us.

“And here's a young man that didn't play a lot of football. He was in my office early in the year. ‘Hey, where do I stand? Am I going to get an opportunity this year?’ And we felt like he would. He had a great preseason camp. And he's been really important to us this year. And his play has been for us the best it's been since he's been here.”

On Saturday, he’ll play in his second-to-last home game, when the Irish (6-2) host 17-point underdog Navy (4-3).

Could it be the beginning of the end of an era?

Schwenke is the last remaining player of the three Hawaii products who came to ND from Oahu’s North Shore out of the 2009 and 2010 recruiting cycles. They’re all from adjoining communities — former Irish All-America linebacker Manti Te’o and ex-wide receiver Robby Toma for Laie, Schwenke from Hauula.

Te’o and Toma, though, commuted to the other side of the island, to Honolulu private school Punahou. Schwenke, a year behind them, played for public school power Kahuku.

The Irish haven’t landed a player for the U.S.’s 50th state since Schwenke signed. Kelly did pursue Punahou safety Jeremy Ioane in that same 2010 class, but Ioane ended up signing with Boise State.

Punahou linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea, now a freshman at UCLA with 15 tackles, was the only Hawaii player in the last four cycles with whom ND has gone far down the road.

“There has to be an initial connection with Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “And we're staying connected with obviously the contacts that we have at Punahou and where Kona is from. If we have that (interest from a player), we'll certainly spend the time and put in the investment there.”

Perhaps the 2015 cycle may generate that interest. The nation’s No. 1 prospect in the junior class, per 247Sports, is from Punahou — 6-7, 275-pound defensive end Canton Kaumatale.

“He’s a good student and he’s a great player,” CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “He’s been offered by quite a few schools already. I’m sure ND will offer him. You have to maintain a presence everywhere when you’re Notre Dame, because you’re the nation’s school, and you don’t want to lose that.

“Manti gave them such a major advantage in that area that it would be tough to see them lose that by losing connections.”

Lemming said there are three to five senior prospects in Hawaii every year that would be worth a look from the Irish. Typically, Hawaii players either stay home or settle in the Pac-12 or Mountain West conferences, or at BYU or Navy.

The Mids have three Hawaii products on their roster, and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo is a Laie native and graduate of Radford High School in Honolulu.

“I know from California it’s another five-hour flight, but it’s worth it,” Lemming said of ND recruiting Hawaii. “And those kids seem to be interested in Notre Dame. When I was out there interviewing their top prospects, almost all of them mentioned Notre Dame. The key to winning football is great players. You’ve got to go where they are.

“I don’t think the distance to Notre Dame is as daunting as the cold weather is. But once they get here, they seem to adjust to it well.”

Well, at least eventually, perhaps.

When Schwenke showed up with his sister for a recruiting visit in January of 2010, he deplaned wearing a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and flip-flops. He later admitted to being worried about it being a bad weekend.

He ended up committing to ND shortly thereafter, and continues to talk up the Irish back in Oahu.

“The things that attracted me to the school were the people, the coaches. It just felt like home,” Schwenke said Tuesday night after practice. “In Hawaii, there is the spirit of aloha. I feel like for Hawaii athletes it’s coming so far from home and seeing that there’s another place that’s halfway across the world that’s just like home. It’s kind of comforting.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

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

WHO: Notre Dame (6-2) vs. Navy (4-3)

WHEN: 3:30 p.m. EDT Saturday

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: ND favored by 17