Larry Johnson Considers Himself a Teacher And the Football Field is His Classroom

By Patrick Maks on August 15, 2014 at 8:15a
Larry Johnson inherits one of the nation's best defensive lines.

Before becoming a beloved fixture at Penn State and a luminary on the Eastern Seaboard, Larry Johnson was just a really darn good football coach at McDonough High School in Pomfret, Md., a sleepy town less than an hour outside of Washington, D.C.

It was there that he went from local legend to Joe Paterno’s defensive line coach. In almost two decades with the Nittany Lions, he molded some of college football’s finest players including seven All-Americans and six first-round NFL Draft picks.

So, yes, it’s taken Johnson a little bit of time to get used to a new home in Columbus and a new job at Ohio State, where he was hired by Urban Meyer to work similar wonders after former assistant Mike Vrabel left for the Houston Texans last winter.

It’s been a process for Johnson to change his wardrobe from blue and white to scarlet and gray and learn to refer to Michigan as “that team up north.” Making fun of his transformation is just fun and games for the Buckeyes, though. It’s lighthearted. What’s not is Johnson’s forte for crafting defensive linemen and bringing them to campus in the first place. That’s serious business. He has a track record to prove it, too. 

But for as ferocious as his units were at Penn State, Johnson seems as warm and as gentle as people come.

Outside of practice, his voice is steady, calm and quiet. He's thoughtful and polite. And he doesn't curse. That’s one of the biggest differences compared to the fiery Vrabel, an imposing, tobacco-chewing hell-raiser who played 14 years in the NFL.

“It’s just a different attitude,” sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa said in March. “He’s more positive, I dare say.” Bosa then flashed a wry smile and let out a nervous laugh. After all, Johnson’s style is decidedly different than Vrabel’s and it's pretty obvious to anyone paying attention. "Coach J," as Bosa calls him, is "super positive. He’s never really tearing anyone down." 

Because Johnson, who holds a degree in health and physical education, considers himself a teacher. The football field is his classroom.

“If you can teach in a classroom, you can teach on the field,” he said Sunday.

“I can name thousands of guys who are really great coaches who have never played the game because they’re good teachers. My philosophy has always been, if you can teach, you’ve got a chance to take a classroom onto the football field and you can develop that skill set and it makes it really nice for your guys to understand exactly what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and the reason why you’re doing it.”

For a defensive line that’s projected to be one of the best in the country, it's the sort of thing that leaves little room for the kind of dissidence that derailed Meyer’s “power of the unit” mantra and a chance at a national championship berth last season. Here, the connection between a coach and his players – a teacher and his students – can’t be overstated.  

"They want to know how to get better not to be good players, but how to be great players. My style is different. It really is. I’m a teacher first. I’m going to do all the things I can as fast as I can. I try to play the game in practice and that’s a different style,” Johnson said. “I’m telling you, our guys have bought into it. Not one guy’s questioned what we’ve done and that’s kind of neat."

If you couple that with Ohio State's size, speed and talent up front, it's a recipe for potentially something special. At Johnson's disposal are Bosa, Noah Spence, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt and quite literally a slew of players who make up what's expected to be a deep rotation.

It’s why Meyer suggested this year’s defensive line could be as good as the one he had while coaching the Florida Gators in 2006. 

“If they all perform and stay healthy, (they) could be at that level," Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days a few weeks ago. “It’s game-changers upfront.”

And guiding them is Johnson, the high school coaching legend turned Penn State stalwart turned Buckeye. In every capacity, though, he has been a teacher first.


Comments Show All Comments

Dayton Buckeye's picture

I hope he rotates a lot of players and keeps them fresh.  Seems like they were kind of worn out by the end of last year.  He has plenty of talent that can give the starters a breather, and save their bodies for the end of the season run.

-1 HS
Northbrook's picture

I believe it has already been established that he intends to do that.

+3 HS
Toilrt Paper's picture

Don't worry. That's why Vrabel is no longer here. Urban wanted a rotation last year, Vrabel wanted to play just his 4 best. It killed the defense the last 4 games of the year. All 4 of those guys were dinged and tired.

zjhousley's picture

Don't kid yourself!!!  If Vrabel wanted to still be here, he would be.  He always said he had aspirations to go be a linebacker coach in the NFL and that's what he is doing.  Meyer did not push him out the door.

apack614's picture

Awesome read, I can't wait to see what it equates to this season!

I can't wait to poop in the PL bathroom.

+2 HS
Vinsaniti's picture

Coach J has done great so far. Let the legend live on the in Scarlet and Gray and bring back the Silver Bullets of old.

buckguyfan1's picture

Can't wait to see how his teaching will result out on the battlefield. 

dubjayfootball90's picture

I have a feeling I am going to be yelling a lot this year. Not so much in anger, but in awe from a dominant D-line. Let us hope so. GO BUCKEYES!!!

You can feed a bobcat all the chili it wants. That don't mean it's going to crap out diamonds.

Hovenaut's picture

I'll always be a fan of Mike Vrabel (hoping he even makes it back to Columbus someday), but I was ecstatic when I read LJSR was joining the OSU staff.

Living in the mid-Atlantic, with family ties to PSU, it was easy to see the results he had at PSU both on and off the field over the years.

We Buckeye fans have been very blessed with defensive line talent over the years, LJSR is going to keep us in good graces.

+4 HS
cinserious's picture

~LJSR is going to put us over the top!

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

+2 HS
SnooBucki's picture

Anyone else still a little bummed about Jamal Marcus? I know we have good depth but I thought he was going to go beast mode this year, especially with Spence out the first 2 games.

+4 HS
Gametime's picture

I'm bummed for Jamal Marcus, but after seeing what Steve Miller, Rashad Frazier, & Tyquan Lewis have been doing, I'm sure we'll be fine without Noah Spence for the first two games.

Between goals and achievement is discipline and consistency. That fire you have inside to do whatever you love is placed there by God. Now go claim it. ~ Denzel Washington

Ahh Saturday's picture

Any idea who gets the start against Navy with Spence on suspension?

HotSauceCommittee's picture

I agree. Was disappointed he 'left the program'. I am optimistic that Mr. Lewis is ready to step up.

hetuck's picture

I'd love to know his thoughts on recruiting advantages of OSU vs. PSU. City vs. rural hamlet has too be big edge for Atlantic seaboard recruits. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi


The best thing about Coach Johnson is his track record of producing NFL-caliber defensive lineman. He's had his fair share of stars at PSU but a vast majority of his linemen were developed by him over the course of 3-4 years. Any DL recruit has to love that. I have hope that Darius Slade is his next big project.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

GVerrilli92's picture

This is exactly what I thought when Slade committed out of nowhere.

That conversation basically involved LJSR telling Darius that he will get him into the NFL, and a prompt "yes sir, thank you sir." in response.

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

holtzy's picture

He is liable to have about 6 linemen go in the first round over the next several years.

Gobucks2204's picture

Does anyone know who is filling in for Noah Spence while he is out on suspension?

"Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends"

Patrick Maks's picture

Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier are competing for playing time in his absence. 

MN Buckeye's picture

I like the vibe that Johnson brings. While our DL coaches have very different styles, they have both been successful, but I like Johnson's developmental approach better.

+1 HS
brutal_brutus's picture

As Coach J said, its neat. I hope this season's D-line sets the benchmark for the upcoming Meyer-Johnson era.

+1 HS
Seattle Linga's picture

Well said BB - Benchmark is correct

NashBuckeye's picture

What a great hire by UFM! I still look at the 2002 D-line as the benchmark for Buckeye D-lines. I am sure Ken Dorsey still has nightmares about Smith, Scott, Anderson, and Peterson. he got hit more in that game than the entire regular season.  Hopefully this line can lead us to one more win than the 2002 D-line.

TURD_BUCKET's picture

His son LJJR gained over 2,000 yards at PSU in 2002. Maybe in another 10 years LJSR's grandson ( LJ3 ? ) will wear the scarlet and gray?!

What a steal to get this guy. Coaching D-linemen pedigree and recruiting the northeast. Both are HUGE assets for the program.

“Being average means you are as close to the bottom as you are to the top.” John Wooden