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All Eyes on Ohio State’s Larry Johnson in 2024

For 10 years, Larry Johnson has coached up the Ohio State defensive line. Despite speculation, he's still going strong at 72.
For 10 years, Larry Johnson has coached up the Ohio State defensive line. Despite speculation, he's still going strong at 72.

For 10 years, Larry Johnson has served as Ohio State’s defensive line coach. Since 2019, he’s also served as its assistant Head Coach alongside Ryan Day. For 10 years, Ohio State has produced NFL talent on the defensive line and regularly won intense recruiting battles. With a track record as superb as Johnson’s, it only makes sense that a lull in production would warrant questions.

Over the last few seasons, fans and opposing coaches alike have pondered if retirement was in the near future for the now-72-year-old coach. While it goes without saying that Johnson has earned the right to retire in his own time, the reports of his coaching demise have been greatly exaggerated. Ohio State is entrenched with depth all across the field in 2024. However, the defensive line will be key to the Buckeyes’ success or failure in 2024, as it has been in years past.

All Eyes on Larry Johnson in 2024

Prior to Ohio State, Johnson coached at Penn State for 18 years. There, he coached up five first-team All-Americans. Among those, four ended up first-round selections with Courtney Brown being the first-overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. He served under Joe Paterno for 15-plus seasons, Tom Bradley for those four games in 2011, and Bill O’Brien during his two-year reign. Johnson was named the interim head coach after O’Brien left for the NFL. Due to the bowl ban, Johnson did not serve as head coach for any games.

James Franklin came in and Johnson elected to take a job at Ohio State in 2014. He earned his chance to be acting head coach in 2020 when Day missed the Michigan State game due to COVID-19. Officially, Johnson has a 1-0 record as head coach. He became the first and only Black head coach in Ohio State’s 133 years of existence.

An Established History of Development

Johnson’s pedigree of development at Ohio State is apparent. However, so is the perceived drop-off. In 2013, the season before Johnson’s hire, Ohio State’s defensive line combined for 52.5 tackles for loss and 30 sacks. Three defensive linemen finished with at least 10 tackles for loss. Further, two players lead the way with seven-and-a-half sacks. In 2014, those numbers increased to 57 tackles for loss with four over 10 and 30.5 sacks. He oversaw the breakout performance of true sophomore Joey Bosa. With 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks, Bosa was a unanimous First-Team All-American.

Since that national championship season, Johnson has developed linemen who have posted 11 seasons with at least 10 tackles for loss. Those 11 include five players who went over 13. Aside from Nick Bosa and Chase Young, however, the sack numbers have not been there. Either way, his defensive lines have been among the best at the FBS level year in and year out.

In 2019, Young developed into a legitimate defensive weapon. In 12 games, he posted 21 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks. His efforts earned him a trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist. However, since then, only one defensive lineman has posted over five sacks in a single season and it took a three-sack Cotton Bowl to do so.

From Recruiting to the NFL

Recruiting has been a strength of Johnson’s since he started coaching. According to 247Sports, Johnson has brought in six five-stars, 23 four-stars, and 10 three-stars. Further, of those six five-stars, four have already been drafted and the other two (Jack Sawyer and Jaylahn Tuimoloau) are projected to be first-rounders in 2025.

In total, Johnson has coached 14 eventual NFL Draft picks. That number is expected to increase in a big way after this season with Sawyer, Tuimoloau, Tyleik Williams, and Ty Hamilton, at the very least.

As of late, Ohio State had several products earn the title of NFL Rookie of the Year. Johnson has had an integral impact there as well. Former Buckeyes Young and both Bosas all won Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Recent Recruiting Wins and Woes

The 2020 recruiting cycle was rough for Johnson and Ohio State. In total, Ohio State only brought in three linemen. Each rated three stars. Even then, only Hamilton is still on the roster.

However, after that, despite reported negative recruiting from high-level rivals, Johnson was able to kick it up a notch. In 2021, Tuimoloau, Sawyer, Williams, and Michael Hall, Jr. committed. Each player will likely be a premier pick in the NFL Draft. Hall was drafted 54th overall in the most recent draft. 2022 brought in four four-stars and three are still on the roster. In the last two cycles, Johnson has brought in six four-star linemen and a three-star.

The NIL era has been a bit of a hit or miss for Johnson and the Buckeyes. However, the 2024 cycle showed that he could still seal the deal. Eddrick Houston was reportedly 50-50 between Ohio State and Alabama on National Signing Day. When he was reassured that Johnson was indeed coaching, he signed on the dotted line.

Every Ohio State coach except for Brian Hartline has had their misses on the recruiting trail. Despite the belief among Ohio State fans, the Buckeyes are not able to sign literally every elite recruit. Especially when a position coach is nearing retirement and opponents regularly use that to negatively recruit.

Nearing the End?

Over the past few years, there has been speculation about Johnson’s future. Despite this, he has remained true to the Buckeyes. However, at 72 years of age, those questions are only going to get louder and louder.

There was a rumor floating around the Buckeye-sphere that Johnson promised Sawyer and Tuimoloau during their recruitment that he would coach out their career and wouldn’t retire. Then, with all of those rumors flying around, he officially addressed it during Ohio State’s Spring practices. He’s quoted as saying at a Spring presser, “[he is] not going to recruit a player and takeoff, that’s not [his] style.” Advertising that a recruiter like Johnson is planning on retiring would do more harm than good. It only makes sense that even if it was on his mind, they’d keep it close to the chest.

Ohio State has added Brandon Jordan as a defensive analyst but there has been speculation that he’s a succession plan. Jordan has had a few stops and is considered a pass-rush specialist. His unit in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks was fourth in sacks in 2023. Jordan is a respected, under-the-radar coach with a bright future. Johnson could be grooming Jordan as a successor. Perhaps it won’t be in 2024 or 2025, but there could be a plan in place.; (editor’s note: Jordan has subsequently left Ohio State for unannounced reasons after this article originally published).

All in all, Johnson has been an integral part of the Buckeyes’ success on defense and in the realm of recruiting. The calls for his retirement from fans who can never be satisfied are ridiculous and unfounded. The Ohio State defensive line in 2024 has the opportunity to be among the elites of the game. Even if 2024 is the final season of Johnson in college football, he’s focused on bringing Ohio State’s ninth national title home.

 

 

 

 

Photo courtesy: Doral Chenoweth / USA TODAY NETWORK

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