Larry Johnson Proud to Watch Former Ohio State Defensive Ends Nick Bosa, Chase Young Play Together for San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII

By Dan Hope on February 9, 2024 at 8:35 am
Nick Bosa and Chase Young
Darren Yamashita – USA TODAY Sports

Larry Johnson can’t help but think about what could have been as he watches Nick Bosa and Chase Young play together for the San Francisco 49ers.

Bosa and Young looked poised to be one of the best defensive end tandems in Ohio State history in 2018. In the first three games of that season – Young’s first as an Ohio State starter – Bosa and Young combined for six sacks.

Their time together as starters was abruptly cut short, however, when Bosa suffered a season-ending core muscle injury in the third quarter of Ohio State’s third game of the season against TCU. Bosa left Ohio State to enter the 2019 NFL draft, giving Buckeye fans only a brief glimpse of how good Bosa and Young could be as a starting pair.

Johnson, Ohio State’s defensive line coach since 2014, still wishes Bosa and Young could have started more than three games together in Columbus.

“You didn't see Nick because he got hurt at the end what he could have possibly been (at Ohio State). That dynamic duo would have been really special to watch,” Johnson said this week in an interview with Eleven Warriors. “I say it all the time, we never got the chance to see what would have happened. It would have been special, the way those guys were going.”

That said, Johnson will be watching proudly as Bosa and Young play on the sport’s biggest stage this Sunday, when the 49ers will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII (6:30 p.m., CBS).

“The one word I use all the time is investing. When you invest in young people’s lives, you get a chance to change their lives rather than coach them,” Johnson said. “And now to see both those guys play at the highest level on the highest day of the year, that's pretty sweet.”

Continuing to help them grow

Johnson continues to maintain a close relationship with both players. Young was back in Columbus multiple times last offseason to train with Johnson while Bosa and his older brother Joey have also returned to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to work with their former defensive line coach in past offseasons.

Johnson received a celebratory phone call from Young and Bosa during the 49ers’ postgame locker room celebration after their 34-31 win over the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game.

“They both called me right after their playoff game, yelling and screaming on the phone. It was pretty cool,” Johnson said. “And I told them, I said, ‘I won’t bother you, men. Congratulations. Good luck next week. I know you guys will be busy, I'll text you when you get close to the game.’ Just letting them know I’m thinking about them.”

It’s no surprise to Johnson or anyone who watched Bosa and Young at Ohio State that they have made it to the sport’s highest stage. They were the No. 2 overall picks in back-to-back NFL drafts – Bosa in 2019, Young in 2020 – after both were All-Americans at Ohio State (Bosa in 2017, Young in 2019).

As good as they were as Buckeyes, Johnson says he’s seen both of them improve at the professional level.

“They’ve grown a lot. They really have,” Johnson said. “Same technique, just stronger, faster, which is really cool.”

“To see both those guys play at the highest level on the highest day of the year, that's pretty sweet.”– Larry Johnson on Nick Bosa and Chase Young

Bosa’s path to the Super Bowl has been more straightforward than Young’s. He was drafted by the 49ers and immediately made the Super Bowl in his first NFL season, losing to the Chiefs in that game four years ago after earning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Bosa tore his ACL in his second NFL season but has been one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive ends ever since, earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2022.

Young’s career started in a nearly identical fashion to Bosa’s. He earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2020 before tearing his ACL in his second NFL season in 2021. Young didn’t bounce back from his injury as strongly as Bosa, however, prompting the Washington Commanders to trade him to the 49ers in October.

That trade, though, set up the opportunity for Young to now play in his first Super Bowl. And Johnson believes that playing together has made both of them better, as evidenced by Bosa recording 9.5 sacks in 11 games (regular season and postseason) since Young joined the 49ers compared to only three sacks in their first eight games of the year.

“I think Nick makes Chase better, Chase makes Nick better. They like to compete. They don't say it very much, but they are competing against each other, which is kind of cool,” Johnson said. “Nick’s saying ‘OK, my boy’s here now, I gotta up the ante a little bit.’ So I think it's great that both guys are challenging themselves, but they're best friends. And that's the cool thing about it.”

Inspiration for current and future Buckeyes

Bosa and Young’s appearance in this year’s Super Bowl will certainly give Johnson some additional recruiting ammunition as he pursues the next crop of defensive ends who will look to follow in their footsteps by becoming collegiate stars and high NFL draft picks.

“Guys want to know what you've done developing guys. And at the highest level, you have two guys on Sunday playing, that's pretty cool. Two defensive ends,” Johnson said. “So I think a lot of the young recruits are going to be watching that.”

Johnson also expects Ohio State’s current defensive ends, including returning starters Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau, to draw inspiration from seeing Bosa and Young play for an NFL championship on Sunday.

“There’s a great testimony of two guys who've done it the right way,” Johnson said. “And those guys see that, and they’re watching too, now. They’re watching and studying those guys. So it's kind of neat. It just kind of gives those guys motivation like ‘Hey, we can do this.’ And I that's pretty cool.”

Although they were both top-10 overall recruits like Young and Bosa, Tuimoloau and Sawyer haven’t yet become the superstars that Young and Bosa were as Buckeyes. While Young and Bosa each became No. 2 overall picks after just three years at Ohio State, Sawyer and Tuimoloau are both back at Ohio State for a fourth year, looking to improve their NFL draft stocks and achieve the goals they haven’t yet met in their Buckeye careers.

Their returns should be the Buckeyes’ gains in 2024, and Johnson is confident in their ability to continue raising their games in their senior seasons before going on to NFL careers of their own.

“I think every footstep is different. Every path is different. But I think the path that the guys are on right now, I like where they're at,” Johnson said. “They've done a great job in the offseason, in the weight room. (Director of sports performance Mickey Marotti) and his staff have done a great job of refining them again. My job is continuing to enhance. But I'm kind of happy where they are right now. Waiting to see the end results.”

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