Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3, 324 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Ewell currently sits at third-string among the nose tackles, behind fifth-year Jonathan Bonner and sophomore Kurt Hinish. Given how quickly Hinish and sophomore three-technique tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa both separated themselves from Ewell last summer, it is worth wondering if incoming freshmen defensive tackles Ja’Mion Franklin and/or Jayson Ademilola might pass him in the depth chart, as well.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star out of Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Va., Ewell was considered the No. 6 player in the state and No. 9 at his position by rivals.com. In just about every respect, he was the defensive tackle prospect viewed as a possible immediate contributor, not the other two interior defensive linemen in the class, the Nos. 38 (Hinish) and 39 (Tagovailoa-Amosa) recruits at the position in rivals’ rankings.
CAREER TO DATE
Ewell saw no action his freshman season, preserving a year of eligibility.
The difference between the trio of defensive tackles’ recruiting rankings and 2017 impacts seems to trace to their conditionings. While Hinish’s and Tagovailoa-Amosa’s high school days had them fit to play right away, Ewell’s left something to be desired. A full year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program helped that cause, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly the first week of March.
“We’re starting to see, first of all, he can lift every weight that’s in the weight room, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into what we need,” Kelly said. “Some of the things that we need — his ten[-yard burst] is becoming competitive for his size. It was non-competitive.
“We’re starting to see that lower-body explosiveness translate into football-related movements. That’s really what’s going on here. That transformation to this big, strong, physical kid into football movements.
“You’re going to see a little bit more of that as we go through the spring. It’s been an encouraging seven weeks for him.”
WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Nothing about Notre Dame’s spring practice diminished the odds of Ewell earning playing time in his freshman campaign. There is still plenty of opportunity at defensive tackle, partly due to junior Elijah Taylor suffering a springtime injury, and partly due to [Daniel] Cage not yet appearing to be entirely full-go after suffering a concussion last season.
“That is not to say Ewell will start. He won’t, at least not on day one, but if he takes to the weight room and grasps the basics of [former defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s scheme, Ewell could see his snaps increase as the season moves along.
“[Jerry] Tillery logged 12 tackles in 12 games, including two tackles for loss, in his freshman season of 2015. If Ewell could exceed those figures, that would be a good start. Certainly, Elko and Kelly would be even happier if Ewell could approach 20 tackles. That may seem a low number, but consider that in 2016, only 14 Irish defenders made more than 20 tackles, including four defensive linemen. If Ewell were to reach that (arbitrary) threshold, it would be as much a sign of him earning playing time as it would be of him excelling in that playing time.”
Ewell’s lack of initial conditioning is not entirely his fault. A high schooler can do only so much without proper guidance. A full 10 months into a collegiate strength program, though, should have gotten Ewell to a point where he would not pull up short within the tackle box while chasing a quarterback for a sack. After all, that is certainly within the reaches of a 10-yard burst.
The stat sheet may claim Ewell logged a four-yard sack in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, but that was only because the Notre Dame coaches had decided the whistle would blow whenever a quarterback left to scramble. The reality was, Ewell took just a few steps toward junior quarterback Ian Book before he was already out of burst. Book needed to take one sidestep away from Ewell to eliminate the pass-rush threat.
The once highly-touted recruit sits firmly on the Irish third-string. At some positions, sits is not an accurate term for a third-stringer. Cornerbacks, for example, or most certainly running backs. At defensive tackle, however, having three worthwhile defensive tackles at each position would be a surplus of riches even Clemson or Alabama would take a second look at. Notre Dame cannot claim that delight yet, not with Ewell struggling to shed a walk-on’s block (sophomore Colin Grunhard, in the Blue-Gold Game clip) before staggering after a quarterback hardly concerned with the imminent threat.
If Ewell does not show more aggression in both the weight room and on the field, Franklin or Ademilola may usurp him for the honor of being the third nose tackle.
DOWN THE ROAD
This segment once figured Ewell “projects as Notre Dame’s defensive tackle of the future.” Not only did Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish seem to have other thoughts about that, but Ewell might, as well, and in the wrong way.
His ceiling may yet be higher than that of either of his classmates, but Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish have both raised their floors to exceedingly-serviceable levels. Neither Tillery nor Bonner will return in 2019, but Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish should slot into each of those starting roles for the following two seasons.
Until more (some) of his potential becomes reality, Ewell has little chance of surpassing either for a leading gig. He could (should) become a needed backup. Even the best defensive tackles come off the field for competitive snaps, meaning Ewell’s contributions as a backup would be vital next season. That is, if he develops at a rate greater than seen thus far.
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