Notre Dame OL Darnell Ewell hopeful position switch will result in playing time

Tyler James I South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Darnell Ewell spent his short break back home before Christmas in dad mode.

In the two days Ewell, a sophomore offensive lineman, had to spend at home in Norfolk, Va., before heading to the Dallas area for Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff semifinal, he was preparing Christmas gifts for his one-year-old daughter, Jemella.

The primary gifts? A small trampoline and a remote-controlled car in which she can ride. They both required assembling on Ewell’s part.

“It took me two days to do it — my whole entire time home,” Ewell said. “My mom, she made me do it all by myself. I did it. It made it worthwhile. I was really grateful for that.”

Having a daughter back home has been a challenge for Ewell. He’s remained committed to pursuing his degree at Notre Dame and competing on the football team, while his daughter experiences things for the first time without him.

Jemella was born in December 2017 just after Ewell finished his first fall semester at Notre Dame. He’s relied on his family back home to help him be a part of his daughter’s life.

“It’s a lot. A lot of people don’t understand being here particularly and being so far away,” Ewell said. “I’m like 13 hours away from home. It’s extremely hard. The last time I saw my daughter was almost half a year. It takes its toll. I look at it on the positive side. It all works out.”

Back at Notre Dame, Ewell’s impact on the football field has been minimal. Ewell joined the Irish as one of the highest-ranked signees in the 2017 class. After starring at Lake Taylor High, Rivals ranked Ewell as the No. 9 defensive tackle and No. 139 overall in the class. 247Sports slated him as the No. 16 defensive tackle and No. 209 overall.

Following the Irish loss to Clemson, Ewell remains as the only active scholarship player in Notre Dame’s sophomore class who has yet to play in a game. The 6-foot-3, 330-pound lineman, whose first scholarship offer came from Clemson in the eighth grade, already has switched positions from nose guard to offensive guard.

“He’s so physically strong,” head coach Brian Kelly said in September of Ewell’s position switch. “And as we looked at the depth of our positions, that was an area where we had some issues and felt like, in particular, this year he could make some strides there. And he has.

“He’s really strong. He uses his lower body very well. He can move people off the point. And I think early indications are that might be a good fit for him.”

Ewell agrees. He’s enjoyed playing offensive line. Ewell played on both the offensive and defensive line in high school.

“It’s been really good. I really can’t complain. I love being on the offensive line,” Ewell said. “It’s a different atmosphere and different type of playing style. It fits really well with me.”

Notre Dame’s offensive line, known for being a tight-knit group, has welcomed him in as part of the crew. They haven’t given him a hard time for crossing over from the other side of the line of scrimmage.

But Ewell has had to force himself to forget as much about Notre Dame’s defense as possible as a member of the scout team. He’s not giving the Irish defense much help if he’s simply outsmarting them because he knows the defensive calls.

“The biggest challenge is definitely trying to not focus on what the defense is doing, because I kind of know what they’re doing. If they call out a certain play, I’ll know exactly what they’re doing,” Ewell said. “I have to try to focus on my offensive stance and technique and try to get everything down.”

Ewell has tried to soak up as much knowledge from his fellow offensive linemen as possible.

“Honestly, I’ve relied on all of them. We’re kind of like a brotherhood. We rely on each other 100,000 percent,” Ewell said. “I’m really listening to everybody. I’m not acting like I know everything or I’m better than anyone. I’m here to learn from all of these guys, even the scout guys.”

Certainly, Ewell can’t claim seniority over any of the other offensive linemen. With the position switch, he essentially became a freshman offensive lineman. His path to the playing field may be long too.

Both left guard Aaron Banks, a sophomore, and right guard Tommy Kraemer, a junior, return as starters. Fellow sophomores Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons would likely get a crack in the rotation ahead of Ewell too. It’s not clear if any of the freshmen have passed Ewell up on the depth chart.

The competition ahead of him doesn’t intimidate Ewell. He plans to keep fighting to prove that the time and energy he’s investing at Notre Dame — and away from his daughter — is worth it.

“I’m here pushing through, having grit, staying with my traits here at the University of Notre Dame,” Ewell said. “Eventually I’ll get my chance. When that time comes — it’s going to come.”

Notre Dame offensive guard Darnell Ewell (94) remains as the only scholarship sophomore on the Irish football roster to have not played in a game.