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March 30, 2009SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Two years ago, Randy Hart made a lasting impression on Ethan Johnson, even if Notre Dame's do-everything defensive lineman didn't want one.
Their introduction came when Hart, then at Washington, stopped by Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., to recruit Johnson's teammate Jordan Polk, a receiver who eventually signed with the Huskies.
Johnson didn't give the Huskies much of a look, but he gave Hart a listen.
"Sharp guy, on point, energetic, excited to be there," Johnson recalled.
Johnson pays more attention to Hart now. It turns out Notre Dame's new line coach brings his energy beyond those recruiting sales calls. The Irish linemen can't get over the difference it's made during spring practice.
Paired with graduate assistant Bryant Young, a 14-year NFL veteran and future Hall of Famer, Notre Dame's defensive front has upgraded at coach to first class.
Former line coach Jappy Oliver departed the program after last season.
"We can tell there's a big change from last year to this year," defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "Coach Hart is all in us and everything. He's so emotional and hyped up all the time. Sometimes he has more energy than we do."
That shows in position drills when Hart and Young take reps to prove their technical points. Last week Hart lifted a walk-on lineman off the ground to demonstrate how to wrap up. Young got down on all fours to show how to strike an offensive lineman from a low stance.
The energy shows when the line isn't working too. During special teams drills on Saturday, Hart stole a few minutes with defensive tackle Ian Williams to show how hand placement can stop a blocker in his tracks even if the defender is down on his knees.
"When I look over at him, I could see him looking at me giving me coaching points," Williams said. "After a play I'd be 20 yards down the field after a run and I turn around and he's right there in my face with coaching points."
It's all part of Hart's plan, one that boils down to tempo. Talk to the four-decade assistant and that term emerges from his motoring mouth within seconds.
"You play the way you practice; if you're going to play with tempo, you're going to practice with tempo," Hart said. "We by no means have it figured out yet, but we're trying and that's going to be the emphasis. You're satisfied in January after you've won 13 games, then we've reached the tempo we want."
Hart's accountability plays well with his players. He knows what it takes to win a national title and what it takes to go winless, meaning the assistant owns a confidence to admit mistakes. He also knows that blaming his players won't improve the roster.
"Their mental grade is my grade," he said. "If they're not in the right place that's my fault."
Then there's college football's most accomplished G.A. in Young.
"That's pretty much just having a legend in your presence every day," Lewis-Moore said. "I just know that's going to help the d-line get better."
Last year's line played too small a part as the defense finished 106th nationally in tackles for loss and a mid-table 50th in sacks. Notre Dame blitzed plenty under Jon Tenuta's influence, but without a lineman to command double teams, those pressures often fizzled.
With Hart and Young directing a green line that could start three sophomores and a junior next season, the hope is the line will demand more than vanilla one-on-one blocking.
"I feel like our tempo is up a lot," said Johnson, who moved to end during Saturday's practice. "That's a big difference, and we've got Coach Young. Split us up and Coach Young is energetic and he's really into it. Coach Young and Coach Hart together, they really get us going."