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October 4, 2013

Pick a spot, any spot

Oklahoma knew which Notre Dame defensive end to consider a back-up. The Sooners knew which defensive end was more comfortable playing nose guard. They knew the right side was, at least in theory, their proverbial strong side.

Oklahoma did not know that Irish senior defensive lineman Kona Schwenke knew these things too. He also knew the Sooners preferred to run to the boundary side, especially when overloading it with a running back as an additional blocker.

On 4th-and-1 in Notre Dame territory, Oklahoma was looking to build on its 14-7 second quarter lead. When quarterback Blake Bell took the snap and followed his blockers to the right side -- the boundary side -- toward Schwenke, the 6-foot-3 , 303-pounder responded by consuming the blocks of both the right tackle and the running back while not yielding an inch. Unblocked thanks to Schwenke's generosity, junior linebacker Ishaq Williams tackled Bell at the line of scrimmage, ending the Sooners' potentially back-breaking drive.

"We talk about it all the time. It's 4th-and-1. We want to try and get penetration," Schwenke said. "We just buckle down."

The native Hawaiian has buckled down this season more than any other, filling in for injured sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day. Notice Day's position described as "defensive end" compared to Schwenke's "defensive lineman." Day has been on the end of the line his entire career. Schwenke, on the other hand, honed his craft in the middle of the line, only moving to the outside this year to fill in for Day.

"I like all (defensive) line positions," Schwenke will say diplomatically when asked which spot he prefers. "I'd probably say nose guard since I've been playing there so long. I'm just more used to it."

In the season-opener, Schwenke played 26 snaps, split between spelling Day and senior nose guard Louis Nix. Against Oklahoma, that number skyrocketed to 60 snaps, catching the attention of both his linemates and his head coach.

"Kona has had a workload," Nix said. "He's taking on the challenge of starting well."

Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised Schwenke's play at the largely-foreign position, citing the increased playing time as the primary factor for any of Schwenke's missed assignments.

"His volume jump was huge, and then you're getting tired," Kelly said Tuesday. "He's been able to settle into the role relative to what we're asking him to do, but we have to be much more careful with the amount of reps that he's getting."

In a way, though getting more reps, Schwenke has faced fewer blockers thanks to the position switch, that fourth-down stop notwithstanding.

"When I'm playing defensive end, it is more of a one-on-one block, you beating the tackle," he said. "As I moved to nose, that's where I found out I needed to be more physical and pick up my weight a little bit because you tend to get more double-teams."

With Kelly saying Day will "definitely" play against Arizona State, Schwenke's snaps at defensive end should begin to decrease significantly. But his overall snap count will likely diminish at a far slower rate.

Against Oklahoma, Nix played 68 out of a possible 71 snaps, while senior defensive end Stephon Tuitt logged 69. With his ability to play all three defensive line positions, Schwenke will give both Nix and Tuitt a few additional breathers each game, something he has not been getting himself in the last few weeks as Day battled a sprained ankle.

"It's good that we get to keep our (defensive) line fresh," Schwenke said. "We go out there, and if we need to come out, we come out."

Coming out may be the idea, but Schwenke has done less of it than ever this season.

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