It didn’t take long for Ohio State’s deep roster of defensive lineman to see a striking difference in former coach Mike Vrabel and new leader Larry Johnson.
When Vrabel spoke, his voice was booming; Johnson speaks in hushed tones. Vrabel’s speeches while motivating were laced with expletives; Johnson gives off a fatherly – or even grandfatherly – vibe filled with plaudits and critiques, not cursing.
“It is just a different attitude,” said Joey Bosa, when asked about the coaches contrasting styles. “Their technique is all similar. He is more positive, I dare say.”
The sophomore defensive lineman was a frequent target of Vrabel’s venom last season. Vrabel, who enjoyed a 14-year standout career in the NFL, saw limitless potential in Bosa. Untapping the full complement of skills required some tough love and Vrabel’s trademark in-your-face style, which Bosa wasn’t always keen on.
But the final tally from last season – 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and a fumble recovery – lent credibility to Vrabel’s motives. Don’t tell that to Bosa, though.
“Coach J is super positive,” he said. “He’s never really tearing anyone down. The coaches have been much more positive in trying to coach and make us better instead of tearing us down.”
Johnson’s downhome style proved effective for 18 seasons at Penn State and more than a decade as a successful high school coach in the Washington, D.C. area. At 61, he’s a throwback to coaches from a previous generation that considered themselves teachers first. Johnson’s gentle demeanor translates well to a group that responds heartily to upbeat enthusiasm.
Under his teddy bear exterior, Johnson exudes the grit and hardiness of a football lifer. Don’t mistake his lack of screaming for being undemanding. Johnson speaks softly and carries a big stick. Cross him at your own peril.
“My deal is about passion,” Johnson said. “I want my guys to see the passion in how I coach. And that’s in my room, off the field and every area of their lives. I bring the same intensity. But I’m also teaching at the same time and getting them to understand my passion for the game and let them feel that.
“It’s a trust factor. They’ve got to trust me. I tell them all the time: once they drink the kool-aid, we’re ready to go. I told them the first day I got here that I was going to reach as far as I can to reach them.”
Issues have been minimal so far. A defensive line overhaul isn’t needed. Where Johnson’s goal lies is establishing depth. In the present day swell of up-tempo offenses, plays quickly number in the 80s and 90s. The era of plodding offenses that left linemen breathing freely passed by with the Yugo.
“He is more positive, I dare say.”– Joey Bosa
Creating an eight- or nine-man rotation would be ideal, according to Johnson. It shouldn’t be difficult considering the amount of talent he has to work with. All four starters return from a unit that excelled on an otherwise porous defense last season.
“There’s not a first group, there’s not a second group. There’s a group of guys trying to get better,” Johnson said. “I’ve sold them on the idea that there are going to be eight or nine guys. The game has changed. You’re talking about spread offense, quick snaps, so that number of plays can go from 65 to 90 really quick. You add that times 12 games, that’s a lot of football.
“What I want to do is play fresh. I want to play eight or nine guys every time and be relentless. That way every guy can play as hard as they can every play. That's how you play defense.”
Bosa, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence form the Big Ten’s best defensive line and one the most ferocious in the country. That fearsome foursome accounted for one-fifth of Ohio State’s tackles and more than half the sacks last season. To their credit are freshman All-American honors and All-Big Ten accolades.
Tommy Schutt, Jamal Marcus, Tyquan Lewis, Donovan Munger, Rashad Frazier, Steve Miller and Tracy Sprinkle are vying for the reserve spots, which could come equipped with 30 or more snaps per game. The early returns on the depth-seekers haven’t featured hanging chads.
Last week, Johnson and Bennett raved about the intensity of practices and the resulting production and efficiency.
“I could literally name every backup. Those guys have really started to come on,” Bennett said. “They just show up, take the technique we’re learning, take the mindset of run to the ball, four to six seconds, point A to point B that you hear from Coach Meyer all the time. They’ve really started taking that seriously. You see them get better every single practice.”
The betterment of an already talented line adds credibility to Johnson’s ability as a coach. He’s well known as a recruiter, even garnering national recruiter of the year honors in 2006. But there’s also six first-round draft picks, including No. 1 overall selection Courtney Brown in 2000, and seven first-team All-Americans.
In the coming seasons, both lists could grow by several names. Reverting to the age of Silver Bullet defenses will lift Ohio State to a familiar level – high atop a lofty perch. It’s a place that makes you a target.
“I think that’s what we all feel we’re going to get back to,” Johnson said. “So it’s one focus, one fight, one team and just one idea about being the best defense in the country.
“They believe in what we’re doing. They want to know how to get better. Not how to be good players, how to be great players. That sense of raising the bar, I’m real excited about that.”
But even keeled enough to prevent from cursing.