Rob Oller: J.T. Tuimoloau is a huge defensive get for Buckeyes, but not the biggest

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch
Larry Johnson, here walking onto the field with his defensive line before the 2018 Big Ten Championship, continues to recruit and develop top talent. “This is Defensive End U. right now,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day.

J.T. Tuimoloau is Ohio State’s highest-rated defensive recruit in the modern era, but the incoming freshman lineman from Seattle is not the most important defensive commitment in recent Buckeyes history.

To find No. 1, go back to January 2014, when Urban Meyer worked his recruiting magic on a former linebacker from North Carolina who had just decommitted from Penn State. Meyer got on the phone and began selling his program as a place the recruit could have a huge impact. 

The conversation went something like this: 

Meyer: “You’re the best at what you do. The $#@& best.”

Recruit: “I appreciate that. By the way, I can help you clean up your language.”

A home visit followed, where Meyer made sure to win over the mom, Christine, who also happened to be the recruit’s wife. Feel free to blink twice, because this recruiting trip was that much outside the box.

Meyer wasn’t desperate, but he needed to land this impact player, because the Buckeyes had just lost a leader off the defensive line.

“When Mike left, Larry was one of the first calls I made,” Meyer said, recalling the recruiting process. “We met, and I was blown away.”

One catch: Larry wanted to take time off from football. Whether disillusioned — he says no, but … — or simply tired from being around the game most of his life, the plan was to sit out the 2014 season.

“I thought about it and prayed about it and thought the best thing was to step away,” the recruit said several years ago. 

But Meyer persisted, and eventually Larry came to Columbus.

BOOM!

Larry Johnson never saw himself at Ohio State. Not really. You don’t spend 18 years as defensive line coach at Penn State then hop over to work for a rival. And make no mistake, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are rivals. Both on the field and in recruiting. But Johnson is a competitor, and what sealed the deal was Ohio State’s reputation as a top-five program, combined with the chance to work for Meyer at a place where he was wanted.

Larry Johnson directs defensive end Zach Harrison during a 2019 practice.

Penn State is still pinching itself, and not in a good way. Did the Nittany Lions do all they could to retain Johnson when head coach Bill O’Brien left for the NFL the first week of January 2014? Johnson applied for the opening, but instead of promoting him the school hired James Franklin. Within a month Johnson was working for Meyer, filling the role previously held by Mike Vrabel, who left at the end of 2013 for the Houston Texans.

“It wasn't a bitter thing,” Johnson said several years ago, addressing his decision to leave Penn State. “I just felt with a new staff coming in again, I didn’t want to be the holdover guy again to go through a transition.”

Rob Oller

Penn State’s loss was Ohio State’s gain. Johnson is a gifted developer of talent. On his watch, six PSU linemen became first-round NFL draft picks. Under his teaching, Joey and Nick Bosa and Chase Young developed into top-three overall NFL draft picks. Lesser-hyped recruits like Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Dre’Mont Jones also improved under him. 

As for recruiting, Johnson has turned Ohio State into a top destination for the nation’s best linemen. Tuimoloau, who chose the Buckeyes over Oregon, Southern California and hometown Washington, is the No. 3 overall player in the 247sports.com composite ranking, one spot ahead of Buckeyes signee Jack Sawyer of Pickerington North. Johnson also was instrumental in bringing five-star lineman Zach Harrison of Olentangy Orange into the fold two years ago. 

More:J.T. Tuimoloau, one of top prospects in 2021 recruiting class, picks Ohio State

“This is Defensive End U. right now because Larry Johnson has recruited and developed at a high level,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said last season.

Even the best get no slack from defensive coach Larry Johnson, here staring at Chase Young after Young picked up his second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Rutgers on Sept. 8, 2018.

So important is Johnson to the Buckeyes’ defensive success that Day and athletic director Gene Smith are making sure the 69-year-old feels appreciated. Financially, that looks like a $1.13 million salary. Just as fundamentally, when Day missed the Michigan State game last fall after testing positive for COVID-19, he tabbed Johnson as his fill-in. That’s called respect. 

Respect is paramount in Johnson’s world, but he is quick to point out it is more important to show appreciation than receive it, a counter-cultural attitude that goes to the heart of why his players love him. They know he cares for them deeply, to the point of never trying to embarrass them publicly by berating them with obscenities.

“Tough love is good, but you can do that without swearing and calling people names,” Johnson said.

Instead of cursing when upset, Johnson responds with “Santa Claus.”

Makes sense. Johnson gifting the Buckeyes with top-shelf recruits makes every day in Buckeye Nation feel like Christmas.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD