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.