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How Ohio State built one of the country's best defensive lines

DE Sam Hubbard is part of a deep, talented and athletic Ohio State defensive line. That group, coached by Larry Johnson, is a big reason the Buckeyes are expected to challenge for the national title. Jason Mowry/ICON Sportswire

Ohio State's Larry Johnson has a full library of former players at his disposal to use to convince top recruits that he can turn them from raw talent into college football’s next great defensive lineman.

Heading into his 22nd straight season coaching defensive linemen in the Big Ten, Johnson has produced six first-round draft picks (including Courtney Brown being the No. 1 overall selection in 2000), seven first-team All-Americans and more Big Ten defensive players of the year than any other coach in the past quarter century. His current roster in Columbus is full of players who could join at least one of those lists.

He can walk into a living room or a high school, sit down across from some freakishly large and athletic 18-year-old and say, ‘Hey, kid, how would you like to be the next Tamba Hali? Or Joey Bosa? Or Tyquan Lewis?’ It seems like a slam-dunk sales pitch, and Johnson says there’s no chance he would ever use it.

“I’m never going to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t want two of the same guy.”

Johnson has built one of the country’s scariest defensive fronts in the four years since he left Penn State to join Urban Meyer in Columbus. The Buckeyes’ line is big, athletic and overflowing with potential star power. It may be the most important piece to what Ohio State is hoping will be another run at a national championship in 2017. And while much of the talk heading into the fall will be about the remarkable depth stockpiled in that section of the depth chart, Johnson says what sets this group apart is its diversity.

Stockpiling is a scoffed-at term in the recruiting offices in Columbus. Why, Johnson asks, fill the roster with three carbon copies of a great athlete waiting for their turn to fill in for the starter when you can find three different athletes who all have unique skills that he can use now?

“Depth helps,” he said. “You want to have the depth to play a lot of guys, but the most important thing is getting a lot of different pieces and getting them all to fit together to take advantage of their skill set.”

The need for diversity on the defensive line started to become more pressing a little more than a decade ago, around the time that Johnson was helping Hali terrorize quarterbacks in State College. At that time, the goal for most defensive line coaches was to find one dominant pass rusher and set him up to do as much damage as possible. Johnson noticed offenses were evolving to find more sophisticated ways to eliminate that one talented player. He needed more weapons in the arsenal to respond to double-teams, chip blocks and quicker three-step drops.

Ohio State’s current line was put together with that in mind. Everyone brings something a little bit different to the equation. Returning Big Ten defensive player of the year Tyquan Lewis is “a horse” and as good on a run-stopper as Johnson has seen, he says. Fellow defensive end Sam Hubbard can keep quarterbacks guessing by dropping into coverage or rushing the passer with equal efficiency. Jalyn Holmes is a “wild card” at 270 pounds who can power his way past offensive linemen at several different positions. The list goes on.

Instead of collecting talent by selling them the idea of taking over for one of his current All-Americans, Johnson said that he recruited his players by identifying a specific strength and showing them how he would develop it further. That approached has landed the Buckeyes at least one five-star defensive line recruit in each of the past two years. Two more -- Taron Vincent and Brenton Cox -- are expected to sign with the 2018 recruiting class.

Once they arrive on campus, construction continues by getting the best athletes as close to the ball as their size will allow. Johnson wants as much natural speed as he can get without sacrificing the player’s ability to hold his own physically. So a 270-pound, highly touted defensive end prospect like Dre'Mont Jones quickly becomes a 295-pound defensive tackle so he can slide down a couple feet closer to the snap. Jones, a redshirt sophomore, is now the Buckeye’s likely starter at the three-technique spot that Johnson thinks is the most important piece in a dominant, modern-day pass rush.

“That’s the guy that’s going to get most of the one-on-one matchups,” he said. “That guy has to be a dynamite pass rusher.”

Jones’ competition for reps at that spot comes from Jashon Cornell and Malik Barrow, who both have added 20 pounds since arriving in Columbus. Cornell also started his career as a defensive end prospect, and Barrow was an explosive defensive tackle out of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Of course, there is a fine balance between bulking up your athletes to move them closer to the ball and packing on so much weight that it negates their athleticism. Johnson said his players all have body fat targets and jump on a scale for weigh-ins with strength coach Mickey Marotti every day to make sure they’re toeing that line without stepping past it.

Moving players into different spots keeps a crowded defensive line room happy by giving them all a role, Johnson said. It also keeps them fresh. Lewis managed to earn his Big Ten lineman of the year accolades by racking up eight sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss despite (or perhaps because of) playing only 42-45 snaps per game.

Ohio State’s coaching staff has found creative ways to keep their stars fresh and to get their increasingly deep and diverse group of talents onto the field. Last season they assembled a pass rush package that featured four defensive ends across the line of scrimmage. This year they’re looking for ways to add a fifth.

Good luck to the coaching staffs scheming to stop them. Johnson said that in his two-plus decades of coaching, he’s never had a defensive line with such a wide variety of athletic abilities. All five of them will be talented. And, more importantly, all five of them will be different.