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A closer look at Larry Johnson’s back-to-back, big time defensive line recruiting hauls

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Ohio State’s defensive line classes in 2021 and 2022 should correlate to an elite level of play very soon.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State Defensive Line Coach, Larry Johnson
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Larry Johnson is the best defensive line coach in college football. Not much of an argument can be made against that statement, and that’s just the plain truth. Whether it’s the track record that he has of players going early in the NFL Draft or the fact that he has the ability to recruit anyone, anywhere thanks to his relational skills, Johnson has been nothing short of incredible for the Buckeyes since the moment he arrived in Columbus.

This year though, the Buckeye defense wasn’t up to the standard that Ohio State generally prides itself on, and the defensive line was no exception. Not a horrible position group by any means, but it wasn’t what you’d expect from the typical Johnson led unit. With the defense arguably costing OSU a chance at a national title, Ryan Day had to make changes on that side of the ball in order to get back to where the defense needs to be to get back to the College Football Playoff.

In this regard, I think that in 2022, there’s going to be a more positive vibe around the defensive line and an end to some of the flack that Johnson took this season from fans. Whether it’s related to his age and possible retirement, or some grumblings that maybe he’s lost his edge in development, fans seemed to turn on LJ this season like never before. But there’s proof that Johnson still has something in the tank and it starts with his recruiting wins over the last two years.


Back-to-back wins on the trail

Simply put, Johnson’s work in the 2021 and 2022 classes has been nothing short of dominant. In both cycles, there’s elite pass rushers, quality interior players, and — most importantly for how Johnson runs his room — depth.

For those reasons, and the addition of Jim Knowles coming to coordinate the defense now, there should be plenty of positive vibes around Johnson’s unit. Ohio State’s defense was going to improve regardless in 2022, because of the amount of young players that were forced to play this season who will presumably be even better because of that experience, but a more cohesive scheme and even more talent coming in will likely help right the ship as well.

Speaking of talent, let’s take an in depth look at the last two recruiting hauls that Johnson has brought in, starting with the most recent 2022 cycle.


The foursome that make up 2022

Caden Curry

The 88th ranked player nationally and the 14th best defensive lineman in the 2022 class, Curry has long been one of the most important targets for Ohio State. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that on the defensive line, Curry was the player that the Buckeyes wanted most, and therefore put the most effort towards.

A player with elite get-off speed, Curry ironically is probably underrated even with his top-100 status. With the versatility that he has, and his ability to line up inside or on the edge, Curry will be a player that will thrive under Johnson’s tutelage. Already having an elite spin move, the coaching he will get under LJ to add more skills to his toolbox will set him up for tremendous success in an Ohio State uniform.

Kenyatta Jackson

Dipping into Florida for this edge rusher, Jackson is the 70th best player nationally and the seventh best edge rusher in the 2022 class. With a long and athletic 6-foot-5 frame, Jackson has the perfect setup to be one of the next great pass rushers for the Buckeyes. With offers from Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia, Clemson, and every other major program in the country, Johnson proved that he can still go into SEC country and pull a big-time player away from the powers who typically are able to keep these kids at home.

This was a home run addition for the Buckeyes and will keep the depth of elite pass rushers in great shape with Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau presumably making another step forward this fall.

Hero Kanu

Easily one of the more interesting recruitments in the entire 2022 cycle, Hero Kanu’s addition to the Buckeye’s class is a major win for Johnson. A player originally from Germany and now by way of California, Kanu is another big time player being listed as the 105th best player nationally and the 18th best at his position.

Obviously already a very talented player, the most exciting aspect of his being signed by Ohio State is just how raw he still is in terms of his football knowledge and experience. Having only played the game for a couple of years, Kanu’s ceiling is still so high and who better to help him get there than Larry Johnson?

Thanks to the relationship building skills that LJ has when it comes to his players, Kanu felt at home on his first trip to Columbus over the summer and that’s one of the more important factors into why the Buckeyes were the choice during the early signing period — even though he didn’t publicly announce his pledge until this past weekend.

Omari Abor

This “commit” should probably come with an asterisk, but if Johnson and Ohio State can hang on, the Buckeyes are adding a massive pass rusher to their roster. The 38th best player nationally and the fourth best player at his position, Abor is currently committed to the Buckeyes, but has made it known that while his verbal is with Ohio State, there’s still plans to visit other schools before he officially signs his Letter of Intent in February.

A bit of uneasiness for any coaching staff, Abor is the highest ranked defensive line prospect in Ohio State’s class and certainly one that they want to hold on to. Fortunately, Johnson’s track record and connection with Abor are what gave Ohio State the edge in the first place, and hopefully will be what keeps him committed over the next few of weeks.

If his pledge sticks though, this 2022 class is one of the best defensive line hauls in the country and one of the better classes Ohio State has signed in recent history. Fortunately, the one behind it is pretty incredible too.


The foursome that make up 2021

J.T. Tuimoloau

Starting with the top player in Ohio State’s class, 5-star end J.T. Tuimoloau was the player that the Buckeyes waited the longest for and it certainly paid off. Proof that LJ could still bring in the top elite national pass rusher, J.T.’s recruitment was vital for Ohio State in the 2021 cycle and it makes sense as to why.

The fourth best player nationally and top player for 247sports in his class, in small glimpses as a true freshman, you can see what type of talent he’s brought to Ohio State and with an expected second-year jump, the expectations for Tuimoloau couldn’t be higher.

J.T. will be a key piece to the defense next season and regardless of who comes back along the defensive line, he needs to be given a majority of the snaps. Athletically, physically, etc. he’s an incredible talent and the Buckeyes need him to make the jump to star status in his sophomore year.

Jack Sawyer

The second 5-star end in Johnson’s 2021 class, Jack Sawyer is everything that was said about Tuimoloau. The in-state product was the 5th best player nationally for his class and the second part to the incredible duo that Ohio State expects to have a huge impact for two more years.

Like Tuimoloau, Sawyer got some experience this year that will almost certainly pay off in 2022. Sawyer too showed flashes of what is to come with his elite level of play and strength in the trenches. If both he and Tuimoloau show the progress that you expect under Johnson, the OSU defense could be back to blowing up backfields in the fall.

Mike Hall

The second of the two in-state gets for the Buckeyes in 2021, Hall is an interior defensive lineman and a player that should see his role increase mightily in 2022 with veteran depth departing. The scouting report on Hall coming out had many raving about his abilities and it was critical for Johnson to keep home.

Ranked as the 53rd best player nationally and tenth best defensive lineman for 2021, Ohio State hasn’t yet seen what Hall can bring to the defense, but with expanded opportunities this year, a jump in development is expected and will be needed if Ohio State’s defense is going to get back to having the tough interior line play that fans expect.

Tyleik Williams

The last player in the 2021 defensive line class, Tyleik Williams was the lowest rated member for the position group, but still came in as the 166th best player nationally and the 25th best defensive lineman; this just goes to show how deep the class was for Johnson and how bright the future can be with these players having gained a year of experience as true freshmen.

A big man on the interior, Williams was one of the brighter spots along the defensive line this season because of the production that he showed as a true freshman. Seeing his playing time decrease the second half of the season though, the fanbase was critical of Williams not being on the field. Another candidate to make a major jump in development as a second-year player, thanks to the departure of players like Haskell Garrett — and potentially others — Williams will be called on to be a key contributor for a defense that looks to get back on track under Knowles.


Conclusion

Larry Johnson has brought in eight highly touted guys over the last two recruiting classes from all over the country. If the critics want to fault Johnson for the defensive line play this season, that’s probably deserving, but second year jumps by the 2021 class and more elite depth coming in thanks to the 2022 class give the Buckeyes back-to-back elite defensive line classes, and as you know, the games are won in the trenches.

Time will tell, but it certainly looks like Larry Johnson still has some gas left in the tank to keep the Buckeyes in a great spot at a critical position group.