The Buckeyes may have made the most important assistant hire in the Big Ten
Larry Johnson says he hasn’t inadvertently introduced himself as “Larry Johnson from Penn State” since he landed at Ohio State on Jan. 14. That said, he’s still adjusting to referring to Michigan as the pejorative “team up north.”
But if Johnson caught himself, in passing, uttering Penn State as part of his title, could anyone blame him?
Before January, Penn State had been the only collegiate employer Johnson had known. For nearly 20 years, Johnson introduced himself as a Penn State assistant to recruits and high school coaches up and down the mid-Atlantic and through Pennsylvania.
“I try hard not to do that,” Johnson said while on the road recruiting for Ohio State in Connecticut in recent weeks. “It’s easy to do, but I’ve been pretty good.”
In the last month, Johnson has patrolled the same recruiting area he ruled at Penn State, now in scarlet and gray. His departure from Penn State to Ohio State in January could emerge as one of the most important assistant coach moves through the entire college football calendar.
"If you know about the East you know about Larry Johnson."
-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer
“If you know about the East you know about Larry Johnson,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Johnson won’t be alone in aggressively recruiting Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, the Northeast and Washington, D.C., for Big Ten territories.
New Penn State coach James Franklin, who offered Johnson spot on his first staff, has vowed to own not just Pennsylvania in recruiting, but Maryland and New Jersey as well. His staff has already picked up four top-100 commitments from the region for 2015.
Meanwhile, new Big Ten member Maryland has been able to protect its home turf since 2012 with the return of Mike Locksley, now offensive coordinator. After landing the top two prospects in the state of Maryland, Locksley was 247Sports’ top recruiter in the Big Ten in 2014, followed by four Ohio State assistants.
And in 2012, 247Sports named Johnson and Locksley two of the top 10 recruiters in the Big Ten for that year’s recruiting cycle, quite the feat considering Penn State at that time had just begun its NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Maryland was coming off a 2-10 season.
Despite all the accolades and expectations for Locksley and the new Penn State staff, few have been more effective recruiting this region of the country than Johnson was at Penn State.
He was Rivals.com’s national recruiter of the year for the 2005-06 cycle. His haul that year included NaVorro Bowman from Suitland, Md., Aaron Maybin from Ellicot City, Md., and Jared Odrick from Lebanon, Pa. All three were first-round picks. A year earlier, Johnson helped Penn State land national No. 1 recruit Derrick Williams from Greenbelt, Md.
In a 2011 ranking, Rivals named Johnson the No. 5 recruiter of the previous decade.
He was the only coach in the top five never to land a head coaching gig, which leads us to why he’s at Ohio State rather than Penn State. (In the end, the track record of elite recruiters-turned-head coaches is checkered. Three of the four recruiters listed ahead of him were fired from their head coaching jobs in less than five years — Larry Porter at Memphis, Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and Tim Brewster at Minnesota. The fourth, Jimbo Fisher, just won the national title.)
Johnson twice interviewed for the head coaching position at Penn State, once to replace Joe Paterno and again to replace Bill O’Brien. Ironically, O’Brien opened the door for Johnson to defect to the border rival. O’Brien hired Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel to coach linebackers with the Texans, opening a spot on the Meyer’s staff for a line coach and ace recruiter.
Johnson checked both boxes.
“Larry just fits right in where everyone on the staff is hard-working recruiter,” 247Sports Director of Recruiting Steve Wiltfong said. “Where he was at, there were times where he was on a coaching staff where not everyone was excited about recruiting as he was.”
That sets up two traditional Big Ten powers (Ohio State and Penn State) and one star recruiter (Locksley) competing for prospects in the talent-rich area of Maryland, D.C., North Carolina, Pennsylvania and the Northeast. And two of these coaches have good reason to recruit with an edge — Johnson was twice passed up for the Penn State job, Franklin was once Maryland’s coach-in-waiting before a new athletic director reversed course.
Ohio State rarely dipped into these areas in recent years, but Johnson gives Meyer instant credibility to cast his recruiting net East.
“Everyone is recruiting those states,” Johnson said. “There are outstanding players here. The area is saturated with good coaches. The ACC is there, the Big Ten is there. That’s a good sign because it means you’re on the right guy.”
Near the end of his Penn State tenure, Johnson was on the right recruits, but the instability in Happy Valley meant he had trouble landing all of them. Now, he’ll have a chance to coach them at Ohio State.
For the Nittany Lions, he recruited linemen Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Tommy Schutt. All picked Ohio State. Schutt had been a Penn State commitment before switching to Ohio State. Spence was a five-star prospect from Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt who opted for the Buckeyes.
Even though he’s on the same field with players who spurned Penn State years ago, Johnson said there’s no hard feelings.
“I never really get upset at things like that,” Johnson said. “They have a right to change their minds. It’s got to be a fit for them. Your chance to be successful is where you’re a good fit.”
Besides, Johnson’s job — other than reeling in top recruits — is to prepare a line that will be the anchor of the defense. Spence and Bosa at end and Michael Bennett at tackle combined for 39 tackles for a loss last season.
With a secondary that struggled last season and a linebacker group that will miss Ryan Shazier, the line has to set the tone, and Johnson intends to do that with an active eight-man rotation.
To do that, Johnson kept his players in constant movement in spring practice. Meyer said his linemen were as active as any group he’s had.
“The way he runs his drills, non-stop movement, some drills are long, some drills are short,” Bennett said. “It gets you ready for hurry up, going back and forth from sidelines. You’ve done it again, again and again. Your body is ready for it.”
The movement may be normal for Johnson, but it was a change of pace at Ohio State during the spring.
In other words, what was old hat for Johnson is new again.
“At the end of the day, sometimes you have to move forward,” Johnson said. “I will never forget where I started. I will never do that.”
His present, though, may be far more interesting.