Larry Johnson is the only returning member of Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff for the second time in four years.
In 2019, Johnson was the only defensive assistant coach retained by new head coach Ryan Day, who hired Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison as co-defensive coordinators, Al Washington as linebackers coach and Matt Barnes as assistant secondary coach to replace Greg Schiano, Alex Grinch, Bill Davis and Taver Johnson on his inaugural staff as the Buckeyes’ head man.
Three years later, Day replaced everyone but the defensive line coach on his defensive coaching staff again, bringing in Jim Knowles as defensive coordinator and Tim Walton and Perry Eliano as secondary coaches to replace Kerry Coombs, Washington and Barnes.
As such, Larry Johnson finds himself once again in the position of being the link between the previous defensive coaching staff and a new defensive coaching staff. But he says he doesn’t look at it that way.
“It’s not about being a lone holdover, it's just the fact I'm a coach, and that's the most important thing,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I was hired to coach football. And that’s the only way to do it. When the day comes that I can't coach, I won't coach. But right now I'm hired to be a coach. And so that doesn’t bother me. I know I have a job to do as a coach to make my unit the best unit, and that's what motivates me every day, trying to find a way to make those guys better.”
As last season neared its end, there was some speculation that Johnson could be on his way out along with the rest of the defensive staff. Johnson turns 70 years old this year, which naturally leads to questions about how many years he will continue coaching before retirement.
Ohio State is certainly glad to have Johnson back, though, given that he’s widely regarded as the greatest defensive line coach in college football history, And Johnson, who also holds the title of associate head coach on Ohio State’s staff, says he has no plans to retire any time soon.
“My retirement plan is way away from here,” Johnson said. “I enjoy coaching. And the day that I stop enjoying coaching and having passion for what I do, then I'll do that. But I don't get up in the morning and say, ‘Well, this is it.’ I don't do that. That's not the way I function. I get up every morning dying to get into this building and coach those guys. And when I can't do that anymore, it’ll tell me. But right now, I'm not telling myself anything. I gotta get going. It’s time to go play a game.”
Larry Johnson says he isnt thinking about retirement.— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) August 16, 2022
My retirement plan is way away from here. I enjoy coaching. pic.twitter.com/BuBkVPnRsA
While there is plenty of excitement within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center about what Knowles and the rest of Ohio State’s new coaches have brought to the table this offseason, Ohio State’s defensive linemen are happy about the stability they’ve had with Johnson, who is entering his ninth year coaching the Buckeyes’ defensive line.
“A lot of other players have cycled through coaches, and I've had coach J as the D-line coach at Ohio State since I was a sophomore in high school recruiting me,” said senior defensive end Zach Harrison. “So I've known him for seven years now. And I know what I'm gonna get from him, he knows what he's gonna get from me and we’ve got a relationship to where I can be honest with him, he can be honest with me.”
Johnson says he has enjoyed working with Knowles, Walton and Eliano on both the practice field and the recruiting trail.
“It's a really great staff. Great guys, great people,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a really fun staff. Coach Knowles has been the best, and secondary guys are great. So I think that's important. When you got a good unit, guys are really close together, you get a chance to bond, I think that's what’s happening in our defensive room. And I think our players are feeding off that, because we have bonded. We come from different backgrounds, but at the end of the day, we’re football coaches. And we gotta find a way to bring our players together, and that's been really fun.”
“I get up every morning dying to get into this building and coach those guys. And when I can't do that anymore, it’ll tell me. But right now, I'm not telling myself anything.”– Larry Johnson
Ohio State’s defensive linemen have seen their position coach mesh well with the new staff.
“Coach Johnson, I mean, I feel like he blends with everyone,” said redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Ty Hamilton. “There's been plenty of coaches that have been through here and every single time, he’s able to find a way to be able to jell with them and make it work and it's never been a problem or anything with any of the coaches. He always makes it work.”
Ohio State is hoping the blend of Johnson’s experience with an otherwise new defensive coaching staff will lead to similar results as that combination achieved in 2019, when the Buckeyes led the entire nation in yards allowed per game, sacks and tackles for loss after struggling defensively the year before.
Johnson says he is drawing from what went well that year and applying those lessons learned to this year, even though there are many differences between what the Buckeyes did defensively under Hafley and Mattison’s leadership in 2019 and what they will be doing under Knowles’ leadership now.
“It's different terminology. Things you learn different. That's all new. It's new language. But football is football, and teaching is teaching, when it comes down to it,” Johnson said. “And that's what you gotta teach a different way, or you do it a different way. But besides that, it's football. It's all ball, as they say.”