Different Message, Same Effectiveness for Johnson

By Kyle Rowland on April 2, 2014 at 9:15a

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.


Comments Show All Comments

HattanBuck85's picture

Love it. Really excited to see Steve Miller this year. Add in a healthy Mike Hill, Donovan Munger and a more improved Chris Carter- I like our depth. 

"The height of human desire is what wins, whether it's on Normandy Beach or in Ohio Stadium." - Woody Hayes

+2 HS
tennbuckeye19's picture

I don't know about everyone else, but I'm super happy to have Larry Johnson on this staff. This d-line is gonna be awesome!

+14 HS
WezBuck28's picture

I'll give you an amen on that..

+3 HS
TheBadOwl's picture

And there were some people who were adamantly against Johnson getting hired, calling him a scumbag. I haven't seen anyone on here say that in a really long time.

LJ is a great ambassador for the game and for our great university. And most importantly, the players respect him immensely. I don't think we could've hired a better d-line coach.

When I walked in this morning and saw the flag was at half mast I thought, "Alright, another bureaucrat ate it." but then I saw it was Li'l Sebastian. Half mast is too high. Show some damn respect.

+6 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

Nice to hear the new coach talking about his defensive line with true passion for the game and the players.  Welcome home Mr Johnson.

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

+3 HS
texbuck's picture

Based on the comments we've heard from players, it sounds like Vrabel's coaching methods will fit better with the NFL. Not saying he wasn't a great coach for us and didn't get great results, but I think his move will end up working out better for all parties involved.

+3 HS
texbuck's picture

Except for Penn State, of course.

+12 HS
Seattle Linga's picture

This line is about to get explosive!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

DannyBeane's picture

I'm drinking the kool-Aid and I don't care. This year is going to be a scary year for whoever we face.

+3 HS
cinserious's picture

Noting Michael Hill and Chris Carter werent mentioned, are they still progressing?

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

Kyle Rowland's picture

Honestly haven't heard much about Hill this spring. But that doesn't mean he isn't progressing. He's still a young guy. Chris Carter continues to get in better shape and make progress. Johnson actually said last week it's still day-to-day for Carter. I wouldn't be surprised if he got playing time this season. 

Horvath22's picture

Thanks, Kyle. Looking forward to this D-line rotation.

+1 HS
Hovenaut's picture

Can't believe I was worried about this unit when Vrabel left for Houston.

LJSR did a tremendous job when he was in State College, could not have asked for a better coach to take over the reigns at D-line.


+2 HS
USMC11917's picture

I am looking forward to seeing what the results are on the field. That being said, I have some training and motivational concerns. I just pose this as a question and not a critique of Coach Johnson's extensive experience. The positive motivation and more tempered approach to coaching may make the players trust you and respect you but what happens when the team is down 13 with 6 minutes to go in the game and the players are feeling the pressure? Have they been honed and tempered through rigorous training to overcome the adversity? Can you do that with the nice guy approach? We will see this season. That is just something I questioned when reading this story. The man has much more experience at coaching football than I do, so don't take this as a knock against Johnson. I am just not so quick to grab that glass of Kool-aid as others might be. I'd rather wait and see and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

johnny11's picture

I take the wait and see approach as well. I do the same thing with recruiting. There are so many things that go into player development and coaching that I never assume that things will always work. I have seen other people do that on this board since I joined only to get let down. Especially as it relates to our defense. Expectation and reality almost never are the same or at least thats what a drill sergeant told me a long time ago lol. Go Bucks

cinserious's picture

LJSR might have a more toned down approach but from what I hear, he still has the passion and seriousness necessary for success in this program. Also I keep hearing from recruits how intense the practices are. I'm sure the defensive line units are included in that assessment.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

BeijingBucks's picture

Your military background is telling. However, football remains a game and can be taught hard and remain fun. Combat is about killing to be honest... The humane response must be squelched and the obedience to orders made paramount.  I personally don't feel they need be trained the same way.  Strictly from a psychological viewpoint...

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

+2 HS
WezBuck28's picture

Anyone else notice that high ass dude in the shorts and sweatshirt with his hat backwards?? Who is that guy? He got any eligibility left?

+2 HS
holtzy's picture

That's Aaron Craft.

+1 HS
WezBuck28's picture

Yeah...your right..not used to seeing him with his hat backwards..

+2 HS
rjenkins26's picture

Haha that guy is about as not Aaron Craft as someone can get...literally made me lol

HattanBuck85's picture

I have seen him in every D-Line video this year working side-by-side with Coach Johnson. Have no clue who that is. 

"The height of human desire is what wins, whether it's on Normandy Beach or in Ohio Stadium." - Woody Hayes

Kyle Rowland's picture

Pretty sure it's Vince Oghobaase. He was hired before last season. Played at Duke.

German Buckeye's picture

Wondering the same, that dude is huge.

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Music to my ears - not so much for opponent's offense though!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

allinosu's picture

 Vrabel coaching style seems to me fits the NFL more than college as Johnson style is more college friendly. Not to say Vrabel wasn't successful because he was.

kgab11's picture

Really think the d-line will push our o-line to get better faster. If we have one of the best d-lines in the country it's a good thing for our o-line to be going up against them every day in practice. It's a win-win. 

+2 HS
Seattle Linga's picture

Win win all around getting better by the practice. Imagine where they will be mid-season.

+2 HS
Nutinpa's picture

It's interesting to read that Jamaal Marcus seems relegated to back-up duty to Noah Spence which to me, is unfortunate.

There is no denying the relationship that Spence enjoys with LJ, going all the way back to his high school recruiting days, and probably even before then. And maybe LJ can mold Spence into a more complete DE, since IMHO, Spence is strictly a pass rusher with poor run stopping technique and effectiveness. And there are people much more knowledgeable than me saying the same thing.

We'll see what Marcus does in the first two games of the season, but I, for one, saw a modest upgrade in the position when he played in Spence's place in the Orange Bowl.  It will also be interesting to see how motivated Marcus can remain if he believes that no matter how well he plays, Spence is still the man.