Ohio State's deep defensive line gives Larry Johnson a chance to add to coaching legacy
Larry Johnson’s legacy as a defensive line coach is secure.
“The man, the myth, the legend,” is how sophomore J.T. Tuimoloau referred to him.
The number of star linemen Johnson has recruited and developed makes a strong case for the claim made by many at Ohio State that he’s the best defensive line coach in college football history.
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Now, in his ninth season in Columbus and 26th as a college coach, Johnson has a line that rivals any he’s ever had in terms of depth. That’s one of the reasons Johnson was the only defensive coach Ryan Day retained from last year’s staff.
It’s the second time in four years that Johnson is the only holdover among defensive coaches. Johnson has confidence the staff changes will work out as well as it did in 2019 when Jeff Hafley helped transform the defense.
For Johnson, retiring is an option. But he remains energized by coaching.
“The day that I stop enjoying coaching and having the passion in what I do, then I'll do that,” he said of retirement. “But I get up every morning dying to get into this building and coach those guys.”
He believes the addition of new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and secondary coaches Tim Walton and Perry Eliano has gone smoothly.
“I think is a really fun staff,” Johnson said. “Coach Knowles has been the best, and the secondary guys are great. I think that's important. When you’ve got a good unit, guys are really close and get a chance to bond. I think that's what’s happening, and I think our players are feeding off of that.”
Johnson said coaches and players have embraced Knowles’ attacking style and the way he preaches that the pass rush and coverage must be in sync.
Johnson has always favored a deep rotation to keep players fresh. This year, he could go three deep at every spot.
But while depth is not an issue, the question is whether any of his players can emerge as a dominant player the way Chase Young or Joey and Nick Bosa were.
“In every group, you’ve got to have an alpha dog, right?” Johnson said. “That guy is the guy that leads the pack. I think we have a couple of guys who can do that. That’s what’s been really fun. The energy and the spirit in practice have been off the charts, better than it’s ever been since I’ve been here.”
Johnson wouldn’t identify the leading alpha dog candidates.
“You can’t name the alpha dog,” he said with a smile. “That’s something you have to see.”
Johnson has several candidates. Zach Harrison is a senior who has all the tools to be dominant. He was productive last year, though his stats were relatively modest.
“I think he’s in a good place right now, (better) than he’s been before,” Johnson said. “He’s worked extremely hard. He understands what the big picture is all about. Now it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”
Like Harrison, Tuimoloau and fellow sophomore Jack Sawyer were five-star recruits. Tuimoloau didn’t commit to the Buckeyes until shortly before training camp last year. After a year in OSU’s system, he has dropped about seven pounds and believes he’s poised for a big season. So does Sawyer, who has added 35 pounds of bulk since last year.
Johnson listed several other players, including Taron Vincent, Ty Hamilton, Michael Hall and Tyleik Williams, who he thinks are ready to break through this year. The Buckeyes also get back defensive end Tyler Friday, the newly named captain who missed last season with an ACL tear.
Players on both sides of the ball have gushed about the improvement the defense has already shown.
“You see it every day,” Sawyer said. “This defense has enabled us to fly around and make plays. When you get a bunch of athletes like we have on our defensive side of the ball and unleash us, a bunch of good stuff happens.”
Sawyer understands that some might be skeptical after last year’s defensive struggles.
“People can say this,” he said. “They can say that. It doesn't mean anything until we step on the field and prove it and show it every game and every snap. We're all looking forward to September 3 (the opener against Notre Dame), for obvious reasons: to show everybody what we're about on the defensive side of the ball this year.”