With the exception of about 30 minutes this week, Ohio State’s preseason practices have been closed to the media. But one doesn’t have to be watching to know the major thing defensive line coach Larry Johnson is stressing to his players.
Led by end Nick Bosa and tackle Dre’Mont Jones, the defensive line is considered among the elite in the country, perhaps on par with Clemson’s. But Johnson’s perpetual notion is there’s always room for improvement, especially in the get-off.
“He’s right,” Bosa said before camp. “You’re always trying to get better with it because that’s the most important part.”
It needs some definition, though. It’s natural to assume that “get off” refers to a defensive lineman’s first step in reaction to the snap of the ball. If so, there would come a point of near perfection.
“It never does reach that point,” Johnson said.
That’s because the reaction is only the beginning. The next several steps are just as vital.
“If I’m not getting my feet into the ground fast, I’m not getting off the ball,” Johnson said. “The key is getting your feet into the ground fast so you have your body in position to run fast.”
Bosa, a preseason All-American and the reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, is a devout disciple of the Johnson method. Like Johnson said, the first reaction puts a player in a leveraged position to move, but it’s the next couple of steps that can take him places, either into or out of the play. It is a prime focus for Bosa this preseason as he seeks improvement over last year.
“Just the point of attack, what I could do better to affect things,” Bosa said. “Everybody likes to watch to finish of the plays, the sacks, when they’re hitting the quarterback. Most highlight tapes are just of the guy coming across the edge and hitting the quarterback. What’s important is what gets you there, everything before that.”
A practice, such as Friday’s on the Coffey Road field where the Buckeyes rough it for a while during preseason camp, didn’t have to be seen to know Johnson was schooling his players on fundamentals. From reacting to the snap-simulating movement of a tiny football on a stick, to establishing position while maintaining responsibility for a certain gap on the line, the repetitions are a consistent part of every practice.
Perhaps that helps explain why Ohio State has produced the defensive lineman of the year in the Big Ten the past four seasons, including Bosa’s older brother, Joey, in 2014 and ’15, and Tyquan Lewis in 2016.
“If you pay attention and do the work, you’re going to get better,” Jones said. “But you’ve got to do the work.”