The Man Who Runs Ohio State’s Pass Rush Factory

Chase Young and the Bosa brothers likely wouldn’t be the superstars they are today without the coaching of Larry Johnson.
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It was the Fourth of July, but most football coaches prefer film to fireworks, and a hard workout to an easy cookout. Larry Johnson was happy to spend the day helping a player he didn’t coach anymore.

Joey Bosa was a Charger, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he wanted to get better. He knew where to go. Johnson, Bosa’s defensive line coach at Ohio State, may be the best coach at his position in the sport, on any level. They met on the OSU campus. Most Buckeyes were home with their families; Joey’s younger brother Nick was back in Florida getting dental work done. Johnson called the only player in his unit who was on campus, a freshman who told Johnson he had a simple goal: “Coach, I want to be the best ever.”

Well, freshmen say a lot of crazy things. This was a chance for Chase Young to see what it meant to be great—and for Johnson to see how much Young wanted it.

“I’ve got Joey Bosa here,” Johnson told him. “Why don’t you come and watch his workout?”

Because of NCAA rules, Young couldn’t join Bosa on the field that day. He went anyway. He watched Bosa’s whole workout, then watched video of it with him afterward, peppering him with questions.

Larry Johnson, Ohio State defensive line coach

Larry Johnson

This week’s NFL draft will be another proud day for the best mini-dynasty in football. Joey Bosa was No. 3 pick in 2016. Nick Bosa was the No. 2 pick in 2019. Young is expected to be the No. 2 pick in 2020.

We are so accustomed to seeing elite schools pump out NFL players that we may not realize how incredible this is. Well, here is some perspective: If Tua Tagovailoa goes in the top five this week, he will be Alabama’s second top-five pick since 2016. Larry Johnson, who only works with defensive linemen, has coached more top-five picks in the last five years than Nick Saban.

If Johnson were a 35-year-old who coached offense, fans would clamor for their team to hire him. Think of the exuberance around LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady last year; Brady is now the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, most football fans don’t know who Johnson is. It is easy to think he is just fortunate—that the Bosas and Young are athletic freaks who would have dominated regardless of who coached them. And it’s true that they are great athletes and were elite recruits. But none were considered the best defensive end in the country out of high school. Johnson helped them become the best in the country in college.

Most of us don’t pay close attention to pass-rushing technique, but Johnson’s pupils swear by his teaching. There is a reason Nick Bosa followed Joey to Ohio State, and why so many of Johnson’s players come back in the summer.

In high school, Young would use a classic pass-rushing move, the club rip, to toss aside offensive linemen. Then he would get to the quarterback. Johnson says “He could get away with that. But at the college level you need more than that.”

Johnson teaches players to keep their feet moving after contact. He cites Aaron Donald as a master at this. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Imagine lifting weights and running at the same time.

“That is not natural,” Johnson said. “It’s a skill you have to acquire. You can’t restart your feet. By the time you do that, the ball is thrown.”

Thirty years ago, pass plays took longer to develop, and defensive linemen could surge upfield and then make their way to the quarterback. Johnson teaches his players how to avoid getting pushed out wide. They turn their hips and drive toward the quarterback. There are a lot of nuances to the technique, and they all add up. Johnson, who moved from Penn State to Ohio State in 2014, has coached seven of the last 11 Big Ten Defensive Linemen of the Year.

Johnson says NFL teams have called, trying to hire him. But Johnson, who is 68, says he prefers coaching college players to pros. He says Ohio State is his last job. So instead of jumping to the league, he tries to answer every call and e-mail from another coach asking for tips—though he admits he doesn’t get to all of them.

Joey and Nick Bosa arrived in the NFL as Pro Bowl-quality players. Ask Johnson how Young compares, and he says “They’re all different. But the thing about Chase: Chase is very athletic guy, he can probably drop into coverage better than some guys.” There were times last season when Young was not just double-teamed but triple-teamed. He still had 16.5 sacks, despite missing two games.

Johnson’s fondest on-field memory of Young is the kind of thing a coach appreciates more than a fan: Against Wisconsin, Young was in the express lane to the quarterback when he recognized a screen developing. Screens, of course, are often designed to counter an aggressive pass rush, but Young was one step ahead in the chess game. He turned before the ball was thrown, caught up to the receiver and made the tackle.

“On the sideline, I’m losing my mind,” Johnson said.

It was the kind of play you rarely see, from the kind of player you rarely find—except at Ohio State.

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