His departure left OSU head coach Urban Meyer with an unenviable task: replacing a solid assistant at a position that would enter the 2014 season with some of the highest expectations in the country.
In replacing the fiery Vrabel, Meyer hit a home run when he poached Larry Johnson Sr. away from a Penn State staff that was in the midst of an overhaul thanks to its coaching change. Instead of looking to fill the vacancy with someone similar, the Buckeyes broke the mold.
Quite frankly, the only similarity between the two men is their reputations as effective coaches. From coaching experience to Ohio State connections to teaching styles, it’s hard to imagine two more different guys than Vrabel and Johnson. At a position populated by intense personalities, OSU found a soft-spoken, no-cursing assistant to lead the way.
Wait… no cursing?
“Never. Not one time,” defensive tackle Tommy Schutt said. “It’s actually changed our room and the way we talk. We don’t curse as much as we used to. When we hear curse words and we’re around Coach Johnson, it’s almost uncomfortable now.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not intense, though. The defensive linemen surveyed at media day on Saturday universally agreed that Johnson raised their level of play through some exacting demands on the practice field.
Schutt said that Johnson harps on effort and technique and said that looking at the differences from last year to this year is like looking at the differences between night and day.
The results would tend to bear that out. The Buckeyes are ranked in the top 15 in the country in both sacks (3.07 per game) and tackles for loss (7.5 per game). In the wins against Alabama and Wisconsin, Ohio State found a way to bottle up a trio of talented running backs, including Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon.
“At Ohio State, we pride ourselves on the defensive line,” senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “Coach Johnson is the best coach in the country. I don’t have any reservations in saying that. I don’t see how another defensive line coach could be better than him. From where he’s taken us last year to this year, it’s incredible.”
That praise isn’t lost on Johnson, who spent the year trying to create a culture of respect and trust in the position room. When told of the praise his players had for him, he said it was the biggest honor he could receive. More than that, though, it’s the fuel that helps drive the unit to its success.
“When you have trust, guys will run through a wall for you,” Johnson said.
Harnessing that energy proved to be a bit of a challenge throughout the season. The unit would play technically sound for most of the game, only to give up big plays due to mental errors. Never was that more the case than when the Buckeyes allowed touchdown runs of 90 and 52 yards to Tevin Coleman.
That stopped happening in the biggest games of the year, though. The Buckeyes held Wisconsin’s Gordon and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry to less than 100 yards apiece.
“Just playing disciplined defense and playing your gaps. That’s the biggest key,” Johnson said. “The tendency when you’re playing football is to go help the next guy. When you jump out of your gaps, bad things happen. We’ve done a really great job of just being disciplined in our gaps and playing fundamental football. I think that’s helped us.”
They’ll face another big task in defending Oregon, which will present a different challenge than Alabama. While the Crimson Tide loved pounding the ball right down the middle, that’s not the way the Ducks operate.
“I think they like to take the defensive line out of the game,” Bennett said. “They are still 50/50 run and pass. They try to keep people guessing. They do what they do very well. I don’t think it would be in their best interest to go against their culture and try to run it down our throats. I don’t think that would work out very well for them.”
If the Buckeyes manage to impose their will on Oregon in the trenches, it’s a safe bet that they’ll come away victorious in the first CFP National Championship. That would be another win for Johnson, who in his first season turned a really good unit into a great one.
At one point at media day, Johnson gazed around the room to get a look at his players, who were surrounded by reporters. He took out his phone and snapped a picture.
“This is history right here,” he said.
He helped write it.