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Football: Larry Johnson serves as the constant for changing Ohio State

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson celebrates after a Buckeye touchdown in the second half of the game against Michigan State on Nov. 10. Ohio State won 26-6. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

Noah Potter took another visit to Ohio State on Dec. 7, three days after head coach Urban Meyer had announced his retirement, handing offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day the reins to one of the most prominent college football programs in the country.

Potter, a four-star defensive end recruit, had been committed to the Buckeyes since April 16. And after the coaching change, his commitment never waned, and he signed his letter of intent on Dec. 19, the first day of the early-signing period.

But when Potter was first introduced as a freshman defensive lineman at Ohio State, he was not talking about the loss of Meyer, the hiring of Day or the coaching inconsistencies. He was talking about one of the only parts of the Ohio State coaching staff that remained consistent through the coaching change: defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

“Once me and Coach Day and Coach J had the in-home meeting and [he] told me Coach J was staying, I never wavered,” Potter said. “There was uncertainty, and I was kind of scared what was going to happen, but I committed to Coach J.”

Potter, five-star defensive end Zach Harrison and three-star defensive tackle Jaden McKenzie are Johnson’s next assignments after five seasons of developing first-round talent on the Ohio State defensive line, including 14 defensive player or linemen of the year recipients — more than any Big Ten program has accumulated in the past 22 years.

Now going into his first season as the head coach at Ohio State, Day knew he wanted to have Johnson by his side. Day said his defensive line coach was a major part of his success in the summer when he prepared to serve as the head coach for the first three games of the season during Meyer’s suspension.

With all of the change, Johnson was one constant for Day, who promoted him to the associate head coach job along with being in charge of the defensive line room.

“You have to win the locker room,” Day said. “What he’s recruited to the defensive line, how those guys feel about it. More than that, he’s a father figure to everybody on the team.”

For Johnson, recruiting never waned.

Potter, the No. 9 recruit from the state of Ohio in the 2019 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, said Johnson showed a level of genuine care for each of the players he interacted with, something he had not seen from other programs.

“With all the schools I visited, nobody talked technique and was so passionate about it as much as him,” Potter said. “I knew he would treat me like one of his sons and embrace me and love me for me.”

With the talent he has accumulated, Johnson has excelled on the field as well.

This past season, the Buckeyes finished the season with 41 sacks in 14 games, No. 2 in the Big Ten. Twenty-three of the 41 total sacks were from Nick Bosa, Dre’Mont Jones and sophomore defensive end Chase Young.

This was something Greg Mattison, the former defensive line coach at Michigan and newly named co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, watched and admired from afar.

“Whenever you play in a league together, you always get a chance to see the other team’s defensive line. And I would always watch their defensive line and watch his coaching,” Mattison said. “All you’ve got to do is look what he’s done with guys and where they’ve gone to the next level.”

Harrison said he met Johnson in the spring of his freshman season at Olentangy Orange High School. In the past four years, the five-star defensive end said their relationship has been strong, and their feelings of trust are mutual.

When Harrison came to Ohio State and began workouts as an early enrollee, the pressure returned — the pressure to perform in front of the coach who had previously coached Nick and Joey Bosa, Dre’Mont Jones and Michael Bennett.

“You know he knows what he’s talking about,” Harrison said. “You don’t want to let him down.  You go that much harder.”

Harrison said he goes that much harder because of Johnson, the coach who helped him decide to come to Ohio State, the coach who, if not with the Buckeyes, would have changed the past four years of his recruitment.

Harrison, Potter and McKenzie join a room filled with former five-star and four-star linemen, some of who, such as freshman Tyreke Smith, Taron Vincent and Tyler Friday, have barely touched the field.

He wanted the camaraderie, the familial atmosphere, the brotherhood that Johnson has defined since 2014. He wanted the expectation of a unit led by Johnson to come down to his play, matching those who had come before him.

But for Harrison, it’s simpler than that.

The five-star defensive end wants to learn from whom he considers to be one of the best in the country.

“Everything he knows, I want to know.”

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