Few members of the coaching community are as revered as the man in charge of Ohio State's defensive line room.
Despite never holding a coordinator position at the collegiate level, Larry Johnson Sr. possesses one of the best reputations in his profession. After a decade spent coaching at the high school level, the North Carolina native initially made his name for helping to mold one of the most dominant pass rushers the Big Ten has ever seen, former Penn State end Courtney Brown.
After recording 70 tackles-for-loss and 33 sacks in his storied career, which earned him the Lombardi, Nagurski, and Outland trophies following his senior year, Brown was selected first overall in the 2000 NFL draft. Though he struggled to recreate his success at the next level, his collegiate position coach continued to pump out stars in State College, with Devon Still, William Hayes, Jimmy Kennedy, and Tamba Hali all earning All-American honors under his tutelage. While Hali has had the most successful pro career of the bunch, Brown's college production led to the honor of his name going on the Smith-Brown award, given annually to the Big Ten's best defensive lineman beginning in 2011.
Johnson knows quite a bit about this award, as one of his pupils has taken it home five of the seven times it's been awarded. It's also no coincidence that once he moved to Columbus to take the same job at Ohio State in 2014, the winner of this honor has come from among his platoon every year since.
While Tyquan Lewis won the award in 2016, the other three trophies have made their way to the mantle of the Bosa household, as Joey won it twice (2014 & 2015) followed by his younger brother Nick last fall. As the elder Bosa has gone on to star at the next level, tallying 23 sacks in his first two seasons, pro scouts have begun watching the younger one closely.
Watched three Nick Bosa games and I cant see anyone taking his place as the top 2019 EDGE. Right now hes my No. 1 overall player.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) May 22, 2018
As the sons of a former NFL defensive end and the nephews of another, many assume that the brothers' success is simply God-given. However, it's the masterful technique that has come under Johnson's instruction that separates the duo from their peers.
According to Johnson, there are five essential elements required for a defensive lineman to be successful on any play:
As he has shared at multiple coaching clinics over the years, including Ohio State's own in which he relegated the offensive coordinator to the second stage, these five elements must be drilled on a daily basis. Through the years, he's developed countless methods of training these techniques, which are evident in the younger Bosa's play on gamedays.
"You should not overemphasize the stance parameters of the D-Lineman. What is important is the stance allows him to take a somewhat neutral position. He should be able to move in either direction with an explosive power-step." - Larry Johnson
Unlike many rush ends that get into a sprinter's stance to spring forward at the snap, Johnson makes sure his players are balanced and able to move laterally if needed. This was one of Joey Bosa's biggest issues upon Johnson's arrival following his freshman season, as the 'Big Bear' needed to rebuild his three-point stance from scratch.
Nick, like his fellow 'Rushmen,' is capable of pushing off either leg and slanting laterally across the face of a blocker thanks to Johnson. Drills like the one below help instill this technique.
Though fans love to see ends explode upfield in order to beat a blocker around the edge, powerful steps like these allow Bosa to close the inside gap, beating the tight end to his spot and gaining enough leverage to push him back into the ball-carrier to break up the play.
"In order for a player to contact the blocker in a fundamentally sound position, it is extremely important the player utilize short, powerful steps while maintaining a good base."
While a sprinter might shoot out of his stance with long, powerful strides, Johnson drills Bosa to take short, choppy steps through a variety of drills.
Anyone who has ever played the position is familiar with the 'chute' - the low, iron cage that forces players to shoot out forward instead of standing straight up - but the mini hurdles force the linemen to get up onto the balls of their feet. The recent addition of conducting such drills in a sand pit has helped reinforce this technique.
As Bosa told Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, “My balance is better from it. That’s the biggest thing,” Bosa said about the sand pit. “When you play so low to the ground, you’re flipping your hips and dipping around. If you can land and keep your feet on sand, then you can keep your feet on turf.”
These short, powerful steps come in handy when Bosa reads a play, allowing him to change direction quickly. Instead of firing off straight into the chest of the right tackle below, he's balanced and able to fight off the block to make a play in the backfield.
"Neutralizing a blocker or a combination blocking scheme involves several reactions. Getting an upfield push on a pass protector, spilling a trap blocker, disrupting a combo block, etc... In order to consistently neutralize a blocker or blocking scheme, the productive D-Lineman must be able to move quickly and efficiently in eight different directions."
As you've probably noticed, Johnson is big on lateral movement. While Bosa is blessed with great athleticism for his 6'4" 270 lb frame, the Buckeyes have a myriad of methods to hone this particular skill.
This lateral agility allowed Bosa to make one of the plays scouts love, as he fights off not one, but two pulling blockers in a counter-trey scheme. Instead of standing still, Bosa shuffles quickly towards the middle, beating the first puller to the spot and keeping him from delivering a blow with power, which then stifles the momentum of the tight end pulling behind him.
"A primary characteristic of an effective defensive player is his ability to quickly and violently shed a blocker. Against the run, escaping predominantly entails lateral movement ability. Against the pass, the defender may have to throw the blocker aside with a club move in order to clear the pass rushing lane. The escape factor is a critical component to D-Line play and it should be practiced on a daily basis with specific drills which hone the player's technique in escaping from contact with the blocker."
In this category, perhaps more than any other, Johnson has separated himself from his peers for the methods he's developed over the years. While most players only learn basic swim and rip moves to complement a natural speed or bull rush, Johnson has developed not only a vast array of hand moves that allow his players to escape a block but the drills to instill them.
The most famous of which is the 'C-cup' method, in which the defender cups the elbow of the blocker to gain control over him.
Hand fighting drill by #Buckeyes DL coach Larry Johnson pic.twitter.com/THYled3xr6— DLineVids (@DLineVids) January 29, 2017
Though it's hard to notice at first, Bosa used this method against an overmatched USC tight end expected to block him in the Cotton Bowl last season. While it appears to be a rip move, you can see Bosa use his right arm to cup the left arm of the blocker, creating separation and allowing him to easily disengage.
Another Johnson classic is the 'side scissors' technique in which the rusher bats the hands of the blocker up, pushing them off-balance.
When put into practice, it's a perfect counter to the cup method. As the blocker braces to have his arm grabbed by the rusher, he's instead hit with a violent slap that sends him backward on his heels.
"An effective escape puts the D-Lineman into position to effectively pursue the ball carrier. No one can out-hustle our defense. We will pursue the ball carrier according to the proper angle and leverage. Hustle and angle are the two components of effective individual pursuit."
The final piece of the puzzle is a relentless effort to finish the play. While most coaches demand this kind of effort, Johnson ensures the technique is executed in a particular way.
As we see in this agility drill, Bosa isn't just trying to close on the dummy to take it down violently. Instead, his right hand is up to bat down a pass while his left hand is positioned to strip the ball upon arrival.
Johnson stresses the need to attack the football, not the player holding it, when rushing the passer. The sheer collision should result in a tackle, meaning the Rushmen have the chance to force turnovers, as was on display in the Cotton Bowl when Sam Darnold coughed up three fumbles during the eight times he was sacked.
But while many believed those turnovers were on Darnold, Bosa consistently closed on the ball with that kind of effort an technique all year long.
These same techniques are on display each Sunday in the fall, as Hali and Joey Bosa continue to terrorize NFL offensive linemen with the same methods taught by Johnson. Thanks to that repertoire of techniques taught by Johnson, pro evaluators will have the confidence to select Nick with a high pick regardless of the numbers he puts up this fall.
In many ways, an NFL team will be placing a bet on Johnson's teaching ability as much as Bosa's size and athleticism. No wonder he gets the main stage during coaching clinics.