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Ohio State can’t keep losing EDGE rushers down the stretch; something — or someone — needs to change

We all love Larry Johnson, but it might be time for him to pass the sticks.

Dylan Stewart

It’s almost hard to write this considering that just yesterday there was at least some sort of positive vibe surrounding the recruitment, but the Buckeyes have lost out on another major defensive target in the 2024 class as two crystal ball predictions were flipped from Ohio State to South Carolina for five-star edge rusher, Dylan Stewart and shortly after, his commitment went public via social media.

Some background on the prospect, Stewart is a 6-foot-5, 235-pound athlete with over 30 offers to his name. A Friendship Academy product out of Washington D.C., Stewart has long been on Ohio State’s radar, and for some time it was thought that the Buckeyes would win this commitment as they received multiple crystal balls following the five-star’s June official visit.

For the past month, all looked good for the Buckeyes to add the No. 13 player in the country (and the third-rated edge rusher) in the class according to 247Sports’ Composite Ratings, but things began shifting in recent weeks as Stewart made multiple trips to Columbia, S.C.

What might have been the thing that sealed his commitment, the Gamecocks were once again able to get him back on campus this past weekend and clearly knocked this visit out of the park as the result has landed them the crown jewel of their class. It’s unfortunate for Ohio State’s staff because they would have loved to host Stewart at last weekend’s SummerFest, but his choosing to return to Columbia instead of Columbus was a pretty major hint as to where he would be heading.

Not a good look at all

There’s no real easy way of saying it, but this is a really bad look for Ohio State’s defensive line coach Larry Johnson. Let me start by saying that LJ is still one of the best developers of the position in college football, but after going literally 0-for-3 in the 2023 class with elite edge rushers, he’s now following that up with another huge swing and miss not even a month after losing Chicago native, Marquise Lightfoot to Miami.

What makes this worse though is that like 2023’s top targets, Stewart and Lightfoot were players long considered Ohio State leans with multiple Buckeye predictions from the nation’s best recruiting analysts. However, for whatever reason — scheme, NIL, playing time, who knows — Johnson wasn’t able to close on any of them.

For years — dating back to his time at Penn State — Johnson has recruited the DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) better than anyone, so this loss hurts on multiple levels. Losing a DMV kid to South Carolina is just a punch to the gut. Sure, maybe the NIL deal in Columbia was too much to turn down, and that can be understandable, but this is becoming a trend and it has to stop.

The Buckeyes cannot afford to continue losing top-edge rushers each and every recruiting cycle. When the backbone of any solid defense is elite defensive line play and the staff keeps missing out on the guys they’re all-in on, that’s a terrible look plain and simple. Once is disappointing, twice is concerning, but three and four times is outright terrifying. If Stewart had been a kid from South (or even North) Carolina, you might chalk it up to wanting to stay closer to home.

But for Johnson to lose a player from a region of the country that has been his bread and butter for decades, might indicate that the shine is wearing off of the legendary coach and that his best might just not be good enough anymore.

For years, other programs have been negatively recruiting against LJ, telling top-end prospects that he is going to retire before their playing careers are done. Despite that, Johnson has reaffirmed his commitment to the program and his job. But let’s be honest, coaching is a young man’s game; intel around the program has been that Johnson does not communicate with recruits nearly as much as his colleagues and competition does.

Those things make a difference. Players want to know that they are a priority and if the longest-tenured coach on your staff isn’t willing — or able — to text with players to make that clear, then it might be time to initiate a succession plan.

Where to go from here

Just two days following the major defensive addition of Aaron Scott, it would be understandable for some folks to suggest that the most anxious of Buckeye fans should take a deep breath and trust the staff, but I personally am over that when considering the defensive side of the ball as a whole.

Yes, Johnson somewhat surprisingly landed five-star defensive tackle Justin Scott earlier this month, but there is a big difference between DT and EDGE rusher in the importance of building a defense. Ohio State’s staff has flat-out not held up its end of the recruiting bargain and, clearly, it has shown on the field.

Offensively, Ryan Day and his crew have continued to mostly dominate despite the recruiting downturn, but it doesn’t take an expert to realize that the team’s defense has not been in the same arena as its offense in recent years. In fact, I think it is safe to say that had the defense been anywhere close to the offense’s level, it would have earned the Buckeyes at least one other national title over the past four seasons.

The only hope now at the EDGE rusher position in this class is for the Buckeyes to win out on five-star DE Eddrick Houston. The Georgia native has been crystal balled to Ohio State for nearly two months, but being in the middle of SEC country, no recruitment is safe until pen hits paper.

At any rate, Johnson needs to lock this one down and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Reports indicate that OSU will continue to recruit both Lightfoot and Stewart until Signing Day, so maybe one or both of them could end up in the class after all, but for now, not being able to land either of them is devastating.

How LJ handles his business — at least on the recruiting side — has to change. Whether it is changing his style or approach to communication or even in focusing more on NIL when talking to players and their families, the Buckeyes cannot afford to lose out on another elite edge rusher, especially with the turnover the position will almost certainly have this year as Johnson’s last two elite DE commits Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau will become draft eligible following the season.

Right now, being mad is completely warranted and probably the easiest reaction. The staff only has a few swings left and they better not strike out.

What If It Doesn’t Get Better?

No one with any understanding of recruiting or high schoolers expects a program — even one with as national of interests as Ohio State, Alabama, or Georgia — to land every top prospect that it is in on. However, to be considered the leader on multiple five-star players only to lose them down the stretch is not a sustainable situation for any program.

So, if Johnson and company can’t close out this cycle with at least one more home run, it might be time to transition the Mount Rushmore position coach out. Whether that means he retires following the 2023 campaign and passes the sticks to someone who has worked under him in the past, or he transitions into a non-recruiting role within the program in which he still works with the players, developing their talent, but someone else is the face of the position, I don’t know. But this trend is not one that Ohio State can sustain for much longer.

The defense made moderate improvements in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ first season — even if the stats were actually better than the production — but still collapsed in the team’s two most important games of the season. Because the DC runs a somewhat unique 4-2-5 defense — with the LEO/Jack position floating between a lineman and a linebacker — it can actually look more like a 3-3-5. However, LJ’s entire career — including recent recruiting — has been focused on playing four traditional down linemen.

If the legendary coach can no longer land the best talent to fit the system he’s always coached in, where is the value in having him bring guys built to play a system that the defensive coordinator no longer runs? If LJ was signing top-50 or even top-75 guys across the board, then you deal with the schematic differences, but that’s just not the case, especially at EDGE rusher.

There seems to be a fairly obvious difference of visions between Knowles and Johnson — as evidenced by Sawyer in the Jack position last year and how much Johnson rotated players, despite the fact that Knowles said that wasn’t his defensive philosophy.

I have long been a Larry Johnson fan and thought that he was essential to the development of the Buckeye program, but at age 71, it might be time for him to make a change.