Ohio State’s Larry Johnson has a full library of former players at his disposal to use in convincing top recruits that he can turn them from raw talent into college football’s next great defensive lineman.
Heading into his 22nd straight season coaching defensive linemen in the Big Ten, Johnson has produced six first-round draft picks (including No. 1 overall selection Courtney Brown), seven first-team All-Americans and more Big Ten defensive players of the year than any other coach in the last quarter century. His current roster in Columbus is full of players who could join at least one of those lists.
He can walk into a living room or a high school, sit down across from some freakishly large and athletic 18 year old and say, ‘Hey, kid, how would you like to be the next Tamba Hali? Or Joey Bosa? Or Tyquan Lewis?’ It seems like a slam-dunk sales pitch, and Johnson says there’s no chance he would ever use it.
“I’m never going to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t want two of the same guy.”
Johnson has built one of the country’s scariest defensive fronts in the four years since he left Penn State to join Urban Meyer in Columbus. The Buckeyes’ line is big, athletic and overflowing with potential star power. It may be the most important piece to what Ohio State is hoping will be another run at a national championship in 2017. And while much of the talk heading into the fall will be about the remarkable depth stockpiled in that section of the depth chart, Johnson says what sets this group apart is its diversity.
Stockpiling is a scoffed-at term in the recruiting offices in Columbus. Why, Johnson asks, fill the roster with three carbon copies of a great athlete waiting for their turn to fill in for the starter when you can find three different athletes who all have unique skills that he can use now?
“Depth helps,” he said. “You want to have the depth to play a lot of guys, but the most important thing is getting a lot of different pieces and getting them all to fit together to take advantage of their skill set.”
The need for diversity on the defensive line started to become more pressing a little more than a decade ago, around the time that Johnson was helping Hali terrorize quarterbacks in State College. At that time the goal for most defensive line coaches was to find one dominant pass rusher and set him up to do as much damage as possible. Johnson noticed offenses were evolving to find more sophisticated ways to eliminate that one talented player. He needed more weapons in the arsenal to respond to double-teams, chip blocks and quicker three-step drops.