Johnson Connection Pays Off For Slade

Ohio State three-star defensive end signee Darius Slade was committed to Michigan State when he woke up on National Signing Day. A special connection with new Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. led him to rethink his decision. Now that he's a Buckeye, Slade is on a mission to prove that Johnson made the right call in going to bat for him.

As Darius Slade traveled to Columbus for his Feb. 21 visit, he knew it wasn't like the other four he'd taken over the course of his recruitment.

With his family in tow, the three-star defensive end from Montclair, N.J., tried to steel himself to learn what he'd signed up for on National Signing Day, when he abandoned his commitment to Michigan State and signed a National Letter of Intent to play for Ohio State.

"I was definitely nervous on the drive up there," he told

Nearly three weeks earlier, OSU head coach Urban Meyer stood at the podium on Feb. 5 and explained that he didn't know much about the Buckeyes' 23rd and final member of the 2014 recruiting class. When Slade effectively ended his chances with Michigan State that morning by planning to visit Ohio State on Feb. 14, it appeared as though he wouldn't sign until he set foot on campus.

Instead, he took a chance – the same decision that new defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. made when he told his boss to save a scholarship for Slade – and faxed his NLI to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

"That's a Larry Johnsonism," Meyer said in describing how Slade ended up as a Buckeye.

As Slade made the journey to Columbus, his nerves were more centered on non-football things – the quality of academic support and how he'd fit in with new teammates. He had no qualms about playing for the man that he first met in middle school.

When Slade was in sixth or seventh grade, as he remembers it, he took a trip to State College, Pa., to see his first cousin Jared Odrick, now with the Miami Dolphins, play defensive line for Penn State. In the locker room after the game, he got a chance to meet Johnson, who was serving as Odrick's position coach.

"We're talking about a relationship that's developed over years," Johnson said on National Signing Day. "It's not just today. He committed to Nebraska and Michigan State, so there was always an ongoing dialogue with him because I'm really close to the family."

Despite his close relationship with Johnson, playing at Penn State was never in the cards for Slade. Following a family member who was a first-team All-American in Happy Valley didn't appeal to Slade. Instead, he committed to Nebraska on Dec. 11 before decommitting in January and switching his pledge to Michigan State.

"I just wanted to go my own route," he said. "I didn't want to go to Penn State because of Jared going there. I wanted to go somewhere that I could set my own track. It was definitely difficult telling Larry Johnson I was going to go elsewhere. Once he packed his bags for Ohio State, I knew I had to at least reconsider my decision and I'm thankful that I did."

Of course, Johnson would have never ended up in Columbus had Penn State coach Bill O'Brien not accepted that same position with the Houston Texans. O'Brien took Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel with him to Houston to serve as the linebackers coach. Johnson, the interim coach who was passed over for the head coaching job in favor of James Franklin, decided to move on after nearly two decades as a Penn State assistant.

His arrival in Columbus meant that Slade could play for a coach he greatly respected without having to bear the constant comparisons to Odrick. That realization set the wheels in motion, and by the time Feb. 5 rolled around, Ohio State was firmly entrenched in his mind.

The decision to sign with the Buckeyes despite never taking a visit came after Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio implied that Slade's scholarship might not be waiting for him if he did indeed take his planned trip to Columbus.

"Michigan State tried to talk me out of it, but I knew I couldn't sign anything (with them) until I went to Ohio State," he said. "Come Signing Day, I was talking to Urban Meyer and Larry Johnson and had a strong feel for the program. I knew that taking a visit, seeing the facilities and getting a tour didn't have to work into the situation or my decision."

With that decision made, Slade became the 23rd member of Ohio State's class, helping to ease the sting of missing out on five-star defensive end Malik McDowell earlier that day.

Any lingering questions he had about Ohio State were answered on the visit. Slade acknowledged the unique aspect of the scenario, noting that it ultimately wouldn't have mattered if he liked it or not – he was bound by his NLI to enroll at Ohio State.

Still, the OSU coaching staff can now rest easy knowing that their push to get him to sign on Feb. 5 was the right call. It kept him away from any potential competitors, and their guess that he would fit into the program proved correct.

"Sitting down with my defensive coordinator and my position coach and going over film and where they see me in the defense definitely stood out to me," he said. "Sitting in Coach Larry Johnson's office watching different drills definitely made me feel at ease.

"I fit in with the players very well, the coaching staff, the defensive scheme they run, the 2014 class. I love the 2014 guys that are there now. They're great guys and great football players. There are some great personalities and stuff like that, and I look forward to playing with those guys."

As someone who wondered how he'd fit into a new class, Slade said the best part of his visit was getting to know his new teammates. He said he's spoken to each member of the 2014 class at least once, and he and his fellow Garden State native Noah Brown are hoping to room together when they arrive on campus.

With one of the craziest recruitment processes in the nation this year now behind him, Slade is focusing on paying back the coach who brought it to an end by vouching for him to Meyer, who he'd coached with for less than a month.

"A lot of guys get stuck on the three- and four- and five-stars and all that, but when it comes down to what coaches see, I really feel that coaches – especially position coaches – don't see the stars," Slade said. "They see potential, they see athleticism and they see a lot of things that the naked eye wouldn't see. They see a lot of things that reporters and rankings people don't see. Right now, I'm a three-star. Larry Johnson didn't see me as a three-star. He saw me as a great athlete with a lot of potential. Larry Johnson would have gone to bat for me wherever he went, and I just have to prove myself and show that what he told Urban Meyer and the coaching staff wasn't false and it was definitely true."

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