NOTRE DAME — Any comic book fan knows that it takes time for a hero to get used to his new powers.
The same can be said for Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, who has quietly bulked up 76 pounds in three years and has emerged from the shadows as a possible starter in the fall.
Schwenke gave Irish fans a taste of his transformation during the annual Blue/Gold spring game on April 21, starting at nose guard in front of incumbent Louis Nix.
Rewind to 2010, when Schwenke arrived on campus a 220-pound freshman from Hauula, Hawaii. It didn’t take long for him to see he was severely undersized next to fellow linemen Ethan Johnson (285 pounds at the time) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (283 pounds).
“I came in and saw the defensive linemen and how big they were compared to me, so I put on a lot of weight in order to hold it down on the D line,” Schwenke said.
Schwenke came into last season a more imposing 286 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. The downside was he wasn’t quite used to his new body; he had bulked up too fast.
He only saw action in three games last season, more to give the starters a breather than to take significant reps, and hovered in third place on the depth chart at defensive end.
“After last season we had a little meeting with our coaches and they told us what we need to work on, and what we need to focus on, coming into this spring,” Schwenke said. “I kind of took that in and focused on all of the little things that they told me I need to work on so I could get a lot better. A lot of those things were with my hands — hand placement and getting stronger in the weight room — so a big focus was on my hand work.”
Schwenke now weighs in at 294 pounds and had an impressive enough spring to be chosen as the defensive captain for the spring scrimmage. He’s been reassigned from defensive end to nose guard, where he is battling Nix for the starting role.
“Kona had to grow into his body,” head coach Brian Kelly said after practice April 14. “Now he’s leaned down a little bit and he’s handling himself. Physically, he’s a strong kid. You’re just seeing the maturity. The shame of it is he played as a true freshman. We had to play him as a true freshman.
“He really should be a guy with three years of eligibility left. He’s really come on from that physical standpoint and I think he’ll be similar to a Sean Cwynar, if not better.”
Nix may have been stripped of his reps with the first team in spring practices as a motivational tool and could likely pass Schwenke back up on the charts. If so, the junior-to-be may find himself filling the void left by the recently departed Aaron Lynch.
His body — and now his mind — are ready for it.
“Last year, I wouldn’t always be comfortable and in shape and my movements and running to the ball,” Schwenke said. “But now it’s coming along.”