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No looking back for Larry Johnson in his return to Penn State

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A familiar face is making his way back to Penn State this weekend.

USA TODAY Sports

Ed. -- Zach M. is another one of LGHL's prize recruits from our latest signing class. Give him a warm Land-Grant welcome to the team.

After 18 years as an assistant coach, Larry Johnson finally got his chance to head the Penn State football program. The lone holdover from the previous staff upon the hiring of Bill O'Brien, Johnson would earn the interim head coach tag with O'Brien's departure to the NFL's Houston Texans. His stint as head coach would last nine days.

Hired by Joe Paterno in 1996, Johnson quickly developed a reputation as an elite defensive line coach and a tenacious recruiter -- particularly in the talent-rich DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) region. With O'Brien's sudden departure, PSU once again turned to Johnson to hold things together and once again, just like in 2012, Johnson applied to become Penn State's head coach.  Johnson publicly acknowledged his candidacy and was supported by many current and former players.  On Jan. 11, James Franklin was named the new head football coach at Penn State University. Four days later, Johnson would leave Penn State for their Big Ten rival, joining Urban Meyer's staff in Columbus -- somewhat ironically in a position vacated when Mike Vrabel left to join O'Brien with the Texans.

On Saturday, Johnson returns to Beaver Stadium for the first time as a visitor. He downplayed his return in Monday's press conference, claiming he would be spending more time in the hotel game planning than reminiscing around Happy Valley. Asked if he had ever spent time in the opposing locker room at Penn State, Johnson said he had not, but, "had heard about it. It's really small."

It's hard to imagine Saturday's game won't have special significance to Johnson and his family. His 18 years at PSU produced seven All-Americans, 14 All-Big Ten selections, and saw his sons -- Tony and Larry Jr. -- have successful playing careers for the Nittany Lions. But all good things must come to an end, and Johnson seems just as ease in a Scarlet and Gray windbreaker as he did in a blue and white one.

Only six games into his Ohio State coaching career, Buckeye fans are quickly taking notice of rewards of Johnson's tutelage with the defensive line. The front four, despite Noah Spence's absence, has produced constant pressure on opposing offenses and provided a spark to a defensive unit trying to re-establish their silver bullet identity. Johnson says he likes not to just coach his players, but fully invest in them. The investment figures to continue to pay off Saturday night with a D-line likely to feast on a beleaguered PSU offensive front.

By his own admission, it's tough to say if Johnson ever got a fair shake at the PSU job.  His candidacy never quite seemed to be seriously considered by then Penn State Athletic Director Dave Joyner, and there's a strong likelihood that being passed over for the head gig twice in three years left Johnson with no choice but to move on despite Franklin's offer to stay on in some capacity.

Johnson was very clear though that he did so on his own terms.  "I didn't have any bitterness when I left," Johnson said Monday.  "It was my decision to leave.  It was my time to move on."