SOUTH BEND – Kona Schwenke didn’t know where he fit in at Notre Dame.
The defensive lineman had played in 19 games, making two starts, and had seven tackles coming into his senior year.
So before this season, Schwenke met with coach Brian Kelly to figure out what the plan was for him after spending three years as a backup.
He clarified how big my role was going to be this year, and he made me feel good as a player, Schwenke said. It was good.
With Kelly’s assurance that a larger role was available for the Hauula, Hawaii, native, Schwenke had a strong preseason camp to build momentum for his final season.
And as Notre Dame (6-2) prepares to play host to Navy (4-3) on Saturday, Schwenke has become even more valuable as the defensive line was thinned by injuries.
He’s been really important to us this year, Kelly said. And his play has been for us the best it’s been since he’s been here.
Notre Dame started this season missing two defensive linemen.
Junior Chase Hounshell suffered his second right shoulder injury in three years during spring camp, keeping him out for the season. Kelly said Hounshell has returned to practice and is participating in drills but will likely not play this season.
Junior and former Bishop Dwenger standout Tony Springmann dislocated his left knee in fall camp and had season-ending surgery on Aug. 22.
The loss of Springmann and Hounshell left the Irish thin behind starters Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day and Louis Nix III.
Before the season started we had a little bit of a rotation but not that much, Schwenke said. But as we got into the season, people started falling out, that’s when I realized I would have to play a big part in defending against offenses this year.
Schwenke’s value rose thanks to his ability to play defensive end and nose guard.
He was called upon to start at defensive end in place of Day after the sophomore suffered an ankle sprain in the Irish’s 31-24 win at Purdue on Sept. 14.
Schwenke had five tackles in starts against Michigan State and Oklahoma, and after coming off the bench against Arizona State, he started again against USC and recorded a tackle.
Schwenke’s versatility was needed in last Saturday’s 45-10 win at Air Force as he stepped into the starting nose guard spot as Nix was held out because of tendinitis in his knee. Schwenke had one tackle against the Falcons.
I played end freshman and sophomore year, and I started playing nose last year, Schwenke said. I was used to both of them. When you are on the end, you want to be more fast, but when you’re in the middle, you want to be bigger, stronger. I worked on my speed and power last season.
Schwenke has played in every game this season and has eight tackles, and he could be needed to start as nose guard again as Nix is questionable to play against Navy because of his knee.
We’re getting a lot of favorable reports on him being able to play next year as well, at the next level, Kelly said. He’s a kid who is lean at 305 pounds right now. They’re hard to find at 6-foot-4. And he’s played well for us.