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‘Burning Questions’: Has Larry Johnson finally lost his fastball?

Johnson, who seems to be universally respected and revered, has nonetheless come under scrutiny for his defensive line’s recent production (or lack thereof).

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about the most important questions yet unanswered for the season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Burning Questions” articles here.

After a legendary high school coaching career in Maryland – and a short stint in Virginia, coaching T.C. Williams High School, made famous by Remember the Titans – Larry Johnson took a job with Penn State in 1996, where he would go on to establish himself as one of the best and most respected assistant coaches in all of college football.

It was with the Nittany Lions that he became known as an elite recruiter and developer of defensive line talent, consistently getting the most out of his many blue-chip recruits. Johnson was unquestionably one of the most sought-after assistants in the game, but ultimately seemed as if he would spend the entirety of his college coaching career in Happy Valley.

However, to the surprise of many, then-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer swooped in and ‘stole’ Johnson after the 2013 season, the latter’s 18th working under (primarily) Joe Paterno, Tom Bradley (four games), and/or Bill O’Brien. Meyer’s move was seen as a major coup in coaching circles and a massive win for the Buckeyes. Johnson succeeded Mike Vrabel, who had just left for the NFL, further elevating OSU’s staff with his decades of experience and expertise.

And to the surprise of very few, he (Johnson) has since left an indelible mark on the program.

Johnson helped Ohio State win a national championship in 2014, by harnessing the ferocious, dominating energy of Joey Bosa and getting the most out of less-heralded players such as Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett. He then went on a recruiting spree for the ages, helping to land Nick Bosa, Chase Young, and Zach Harrison among others (all top-two players at their position), while concurrently coaching up and developing the DL unit.

But even as Johnson has continued to recruit well in recent years, his ‘Rushmen’ have taken a major step back in the impact and production department(s).

Since Young set the OSU single-season record with 16.5 sacks in 2019, no other Buckeye pass rusher has exceeded 5.5 (sacks). Collectively, Ohio State’s DL has averaged 35.5 sacks over the last two seasons, after racking up 53 during Young’s record-setting campaign. And guys like Harrison, J.T. Tuimolou, and Jack Sawyer have not lived up to certain lofty expectations, which could be considered an indictment against Johnson.

Now, in Johnson and his players’ defense, both Tuimoloau and Sawyer have been pegged by many as 2023 breakout candidates. And some would say that Tuimoloau, who was a HUGE get in recruiting for the coaching legend, has already experienced his breakout, but needs consistent help from his peers. Sawyer, meanwhile, spent his all-important second season playing out of position for reasons known only to Jim Knowles. But most or all positional jockeying and/or improvement falls under the jurisdiction of Johnson, and his recent results have left much to be desired.

So naturally, certain fans, media, and even coaches elsewhere engaging in negative recruiting have started (or continued) to ask if Johnson is losing – or has already lost – his fastball, in terms of both recruiting and development. This is what we at LGHL call a Burning Question. And while I don’t have a definitive answer RE: Johnson and/or his fastball, I do believe that it would be unwise to hastily prepare a eulogy for his illustrious coaching career.

Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Have Johnson and his players up front fallen short of their own admittedly high expectations? Yes, absolutely. Has recruiting fallen off? Perhaps a bit, although not as severely as one might think. And do recent, stunningly low sack totals have a direct correlation to the Buckeyes’ frustrating regression on defense? You betcha. But should Johnson and his boys wear a crown of shame, or take a lion’s share of the blame? Not. At. All.

Look, it is hard to get after opposing quarterbacks when those guys have wide open targets running all over the field. For as bad as the Ohio State pass rush has been recently, the secondary and pass coverage have been exponentially worse, in my humble opinion.

There is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg thing going on in Columbus when it comes to the defensive struggles, but I am a firm believer that pressure is created in the back end. If pass catchers experience trouble separating and/or getting open, then the big boys up front have more time to collapse the pocket, finish their pursuit, chase down a QB, whatever.

That doesn’t seem to be happening recently for OSU, to the point where ‘coverage sack’ is a foreign phrase. So while Johnson’s pass rushers do need to win more 1-on-1 battles, they have received little in the way of resistance or assistance from their pals in the back.

From a recruiting and development standpoint, I question whether Johnson has fallen off at all. Because every coach is going to have their hits and misses, he is no exception. But if we’re playing the ‘stars matter’ game, then Johnson has been keeping pace with the best of them.

Tuimoloau and Sawyer were both top-5 national recruits in 2021. Kenyatta Jackson and Omari Abor were top-60 guys the following year, ranked No. 5 and No. 6 at their position (247 composite). The 2023 recruiting cycle was a a down one, but primarily because Johnson and the Buckeyes seemed hell-bent on replicating a Tuimoloau-Sawyer type of duo. He/they took a few shots and missed but may have still landed a few future studs in Jason Moore and Joshua Mickens.

2024 is obviously TBD, however recent rumors have Ohio State in prime position to potentially land a trio of top-100 DL. This is, of course, in addition to Mike Hall Jr., Tyleik Williams, and Caden Curry, all of whom have flashed when healthy or given opportunities.

Elite players are still signing up to play for Johnson. And we can quibble about their development and/or production all day long, but again, I think we need to look at the bigger picture. OSU has struggled at the second and third levels of defense since 2019. I brought up the secondary, but don’t forget about Al Washington’s linebackers... Yeesh. The entire Buckeye defense has taken a step or two back, Johnson’s DL included. But if the pieces come together in 2023, I would be shocked if the players up front are the weak(est) link.

Back to our Burning Question: Has Larry Johnson lost his fastball — AKA has the game passed him by? I can’t get there. Not yet at least. He may have struggled with command and/or given up a few dingers in recent years, but I believe that he can still throw heat with the best of ‘em. If the Buckeyes rack up 40+ sacks in 2023, have a DL or two drafted in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft, and recruit a talented group of players for the future, then any loud talk about Johnson’s place in the game will become a whisper.