Johnson Raising the Bar for Defensive Linemen
By Patrick Murphy
Urban Meyer didn’t hire Larry Johnson to maintain the status quo on the Ohio State defensive line. After Mike Vrabel left the Buckeyes’ coaching staff for the NFL, Meyer went after one of the best in the business in order to help improve OSU’s defense.
The defensive line was the most productive unit on that side of the ball last season, finishing with 32.5 sacks, but Johnson is looking for more production and his players are buying in.
“On the field they believe what we're doing,” Johnson said during spring practice.
“The questions they're asking in the room, they want to learn football. They want to know how to get better. Not to be good players, but to be great players. I think that's the sense of raising the bar in the room, and I'm really excited about that.”
In order to raise the bar for a unit that was statistically the most productive since 2000, there cannot be any complacency. Johnson believes this is important for the players who have had success, specifically freshman All American Joey Bosa.
“I think the key is that he doesn't stay the same. He's got to move forward,” Johnson said of Bosa.
“The thing that he and I talk about is that we've got to forget about last year, it's about this year. Every time you step on the field you've got to be a better player because he'll be a marked guy. They're gonna turn protection to him, they're gonna chip him. It's going to be a different game than he saw last year because they know who he is, so he's got to get prepared for that. Right now he's doing a good job of working.”
Down the line from Bosa, Noah Spence is also is looking to take his game to the next level. The junior had a stellar first two years for Ohio State, but will miss the first two games of the season after testing positive for trace amount of Ecstasy last year. Spence isn’t letting his suspension slow his development.
“He's working really hard,” Johnson said. “I've been really pleased with his effort on the field and off the field. He's done great in the classroom, so I think Noah is all about business. I think he wants to be a great player and great players work hard and work through adversity, and that's what he's doing. I think it's been really good to see that.”
In the middle of his line, Johnson has two players that have to raise their level, as both are adjusting to new roles.
Michael Bennett’s move to nose tackle has been questioned by those who think he is undersized for the position, but Johnson is spinning the situation in a positive way.
“Quickness is the key for me on the inside,” he said of the 6’2”, 288 pound Bennett.
“It's not about how big you are, it's quickness. The things we do, we want to be a penetrating defense. Attack, get off the ball. With all of the spread teams, I like to play with quickness. We like to play with quickness and Mike brings that to the table. That's why he's a great fit for us on this inside.”
Adolphus Washington – the former five star defensive end – will move full time to defensive tackle this year. Johnson said the move was because of Washington’s pass rushing ability, but they are pleased with his skill against the run as well.
The four starters aren’t the only place where the bar can be raised. The Buckeyes have shown there is depth along the line and Johnson plans on using that to maintain a high level of play.
“The game has changed now,” Johnson said. “You're talking about the spread offense, quick snaps, quick balls getting out of there. That number can go from 65 [snaps] to 90 pretty quick. You add that times 12 games, one guy doing it, that's a lot of football.
“What I want to do is play fresh. I want to play eight or nine guys every time and be relentless on the football field, that way every guy can play as hard as he can on every snap, and that's how you play defense.”
That means players like Steve Miller, Jamal Marcus, Tyquan Lewis, Tommy Schutt, and Michael Hill, among others, must be ready to maintain the level of play when they check into the game.
“There's not a first group, there's not a second group. There's a group of guys who are gonna try to work together and be better,” Johnson said.
“I've sold them on the idea that there are gonna be eight and nine guys playing, so let's compete and see who's got it. It's not the guy who's starting the game, it's the guys that finish the game that's going to make the difference.”
Keeping all of the players fresh means they can play at the higher level more consistently. The consistency helps with raising the bar which goes a long way to helping the defense reach their ultimate goal: to be the best in the country. That’s how Johnson has sold these players.
“It's one focus, one fight, one team, and just one idea about being the best defense in the country,” he said. “So it's easy to sell that when you know what you want to be.”