Less than 10 minutes into the first spring practice of his junior season – which is considered to be the money year for elite NFL prospects – Bosa looked immune to the pressure of an impending multimillion-dollar payday and all the scrutiny that comes with that potential.
In two seasons with the Buckeyes, Bosa has emerged as one of the nation’s elite defenders. Last year, he became a unanimous All-American while anchoring Ohio State’s defensive line en route to winning the national championship.
His pro prospects are legitimate. Mike Detillier, a veteran draft analyst who has been producing his draft report long enough to have scouted Bosa’s father and uncle (both of whom were taken with the 16th overall pick), said he believes Bosa is currently one of the top five players available for the 2016 draft.
He even took that praise a step further, saying that Bosa would be one of the top players taken if he were eligible for this year’s draft as a sophomore.
“If he were in this draft class, he’s possibly the top defensive end off the board and one of the top players period,” Detillier said. “I’ll put it to you this way – he doesn’t have a lot of negatives. We’re talking about a 20-year-old kid. He’s not even fully physically developed yet. That’s what’s so striking about him. He’s still developing and yet he’s a dominant player.”
There is a danger that comes with that praise, through. The year-round obsession with the NFL draft can lead to a magnifying glass that follows the lives of the top underclassmen in the NCAA. Every game, every play and every movement is seemingly inspected.
For example, former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney wilted under the intense spotlight that tracked him after he de-cleated Michigan running back Vincent Smith with a brutal hit during the bowl game of his sophomore campaign, although his predraft workouts restored his place at the top of the pecking order.
Before that, the months leading up to Clowney’s junior campaign saw talk of a Heisman Trophy and vaulted him to the top of most draft boards. But in the season opener against North Carolina, Clowney managed just three tackles. His decision to sit out a midseason game against Kentucky due to a rib injury brought out accusations of selfishness, and he finished the season with just three sacks.
Self-preservation isn’t an uncommon trait among college players who routinely see teammates go down with costly injuries. In 2014, Ohio State senior captain Michael Bennett attributed his inconsistent first half of the season at defensive tackle to lingering fears of deflating draft stock.
“I looked back on my senior year and then I watched film of last year and I wasn’t firing off the ball,” he said nine games into the campaign. “I realized I was playing cautious. I was too scared to make mistakes, I didn’t want to mess up, I didn’t want to get hurt or whatever. I couldn’t afford to do that for my teammates or for myself so I decided I was going to go out, play as hard as I can and whatever happens, happens.”
When Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. was recently asked if the OSU coaching staff needed to worry about similar thing happening with Bosa, he barely let the question finish before delivering a definitive answer.
“It will never happen,” Johnson said, repeating it for effect.
Johnson and others close to Bosa have their reasons for believing the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native won’t succumb to the suffocating pressures that have taken down others in his position. The first reason dates back to the pairing of two players who were drafted nearly three decades ago.
The Perfect Storm
Bosa’s father, John, a New Hampshire native who played his college ball at Boston College, was taken by the Miami Dolphins in the first round of the 1987 NFL draft. He played three seasons for the Dolphins at defensive end, notching seven career sacks before retiring.
One year after John was drafted, the Dolphins chose Ohio State linebacker Eric Kumerow with their first-round selection. Kumerow also played three years with the Dolphins, sliding down to defensive end in the NFL.
The pair of players is linked by more than similar careers, though. John married Kumerow’s sister, Cheryl, and the couple had two sons – Joey and Nick, who is a class of 2016 five-star prospect being recruited by the Buckeyes.
With those bloodlines, it shouldn’t be a surprise that football and everything surrounding it has come easy to the Bosa boys.
“Joey was prepared for this long before anyone else was,” said south Florida recruiting analyst Larry Blustein, who has covered recruiting for more than four decades. “It’s safe to say he was prepared for this before he was born. That’s a huge advantage, to grow up in a family where both sides produced first-round draft picks. It’s like a perfect storm.”
That storm continued to gain strength when he got to Ohio State. Bosa had an impressive freshman season under position coach Mike Vrabel, but he really put things together the following season under Johnson. The hiring of Johnson by Ohio State is just another reason Bosa is viewed by the NFL community as such a valuable commodity.
“He’s got one of the premier defensive line coaches in the country in Larry Johnson,” Detillier said. “That hire by Urban Meyer was fantastic. When you look at his career at Penn State, he and Ed Orgeron at LSU are probably the two best defensive line coaches in college football. Joey’s been aided by having one of the best technical coaches in the game working with him.”
It's not just the technical skill of Johnson as a coach that has made his partnership with Bosa so successful – it’s his ability to connect with Bosa and fully unlock his tremendous potential.
"I always look at the trust and what goes on within a unit," Meyer said. "I can't imagine a player and a coach being closer right now than Larry Johnson and Joey Bosa."
Those factors have given him a solid base, but he was also aided by the circumstances surrounding Ohio State’s national championship run. Detillier said Bosa is currently the highest rated pro prospect playing for Ohio State – he noted that could change if quarterback Cardale Jones picks up where he left off last season – but the national championship run vaulted others into the limelight.
Between the interest surrounding a quarterback competition that could stretch into late August and the emergence of charismatic running back Ezekiel Elliott as the nation’s preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, Bosa can likely cruise into the season as under the radar as a potential top pick could be.
“It’s not fair, but quarterbacks always have an advantage (when it comes to attention),” Detillier said. “From a ratings standpoint, he’s the highest rated player on Ohio State’s team. But look at the 2006 draft. Mario Williams from North Carolina State went first, but all you ever heard about was Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart out of USC.
“That’s what’s happened to Joey. He gets overshadowed by Zeke and Barrett and everything that happened late with Cardale. But here’s the thing: In the NFL, if you’ve got someone who can rush the quarterback like Joey, he’s going to hit the stage real quick (at the draft).”
Bosa has bristled at times about being held to too high a standard by fans, once tweeting, “Apparently if I don’t get a sack I’m nonexistent…” after Ohio State’s 42-27 win against Indiana on Nov. 22. However, he’s otherwise more than happy to avoid self-promotion.
Bosa is notoriously taciturn in his interviews, often favoring short deadpan quips and a wry smile as his weapons of choice – a trait that Blustein said separates him from his more loquacious sibling. Teammates say they’ve never heard him discuss the rather large paycheck that could be waiting on the other side of this season.
“You never hear him say he’s going to be the first pick or anything like that,” senior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “Everybody knows what he could be, but you never hear him talking about it and never hear him bragging about it. He just wants to go out there and play football with us.”
Bosa knows there’s no point in trying to avoid the chatter that surrounds his professional future. Instead, he lets the words roll off him like he’s continuously shedding a wave of blockers reaching out to him.
“I obviously hear about it and see it around, but it doesn’t get to my head,” Bosa said. “I have my goals set, and it’s just to get better and be a great team again this year. I feel like if I go out and work every day, everything will fall into place.”
Fun In The Sun
Having grown up in a family with an uncle and father who mastered the recruiting scene and dealt with the NFL draft hype, Bosa’s comfort level around the attention paid to college football gives him an unflappable aura that makes him look at ease at all times. His superior genes and his uncommon upbringing have made everything easier, allowing him to have his share of fun along the way while avoiding pressure.
During his unanimous All-America season as a sophomore in 2014, he laughed off a complaint from a fan who questioned his dedication to football when he tweeted about playing late-night video games. His devotion to electronic dance music is well known, and Bosa made it even more clear when he fired off a whopping 99 tweets about the Ultra Music Festival on March 29, then laughed about losing a few hundred followers on his Twitter page.
Music is one of his loves, but there’s a pretty sizeable place in Bosa’s heart for football. Even when he’s not on the field, Bosa said there are times when he finds inspiration for new moves by bobbing and weaving his way through crowded sidewalks or college hallways.
Occasionally, a pair of Ohio State students will cross Bosa’s path only to watch in stunned silence as he briefly activates football mode, flipping his hips past one and then the other before resuming his walk like nothing happened.
“When you have a guy walking down the street and he’s doing a pass-rush move, that’s when you know you’ve got it inside his head,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of neat because we know he’s thinking it. He’ll walk past me and hit a pass-rush move, and that’s what you want.”
Nobody has more fun playing football than Bosa – even his trademark sack celebration, the human embodiment of the ¯\_(?)_/¯ emoticon, casually laughs off his excellence. However, nobody does a better job of filtering out the noise.
“Nothing he or his younger brother, Nick, has come across – and that includes winning a national championship out of the blue – affects them,” Blustein said. “They’re there to do the job.”
The Final Chapter
If you were looking for one reason Bosa won’t spend the next dozen or so games of his college career looking ahead to the pros, spending five minutes talking with him or Johnson should do the trick.
“Just to be very clear, (Bosa protecting himself) will never happen because he wants to be great,” Johnson said. “Great players don’t shut down. Great players go forward. That’s what we hope Joey will do. He understands leaders have to be the best workers. Your best player has to be your best worker. Right now Joey Bosa is our best player and he’s working really hard, so that’s not going to stop.”
When asked about what he needed to improve, Bosa initially said there wasn’t any area of his game that didn’t need at least some work. Pressed further, he said that one of his weakest areas earlier last fall was in adhering to Johnson’s system, although he said he buckled down as the season went on. Bosa estimates that he left a handful of sacks on the table last season because his desperation to make a big play led him to freelance instead of sticking to the plan.
“A lot of times I was just doing my own thing, just because I felt like I always had to go make that play to change the game,” he said. “It got better throughout the season obviously, but watching the film I see that plays could just fall into my lap and as long as I’m doing my job I could make even more plays. I’d see five or six sacks that I could have had but I went inside instead of outside or something like that.
“Just stick to the game plan and have faith it will work out.”
He’s also sticking to the Larry Johnson NFL Draft Plan, a proven success over the years. Johnson coached six first-round draft picks at defensive line during his time at Penn State. Only a plague of Biblical proportions appears capable of keeping Bosa from being the seventh.
Johnson said he’s working with Bosa to maximize his potential, but he’s also pleased that his protégé is more focused on becoming a better football player than he is becoming a high draft pick – a slight but important distinction.
“He gets it, but we’re trying to push the envelope to make sure he understands what it takes to be a high draft pick,” Johnson said. “That’s not what’s on his mind right now. Joey Bosa wants to be a great player, and he knows to do that he’s got to start here. It starts every day at practice. He’s not looking to the NFL. He knows he’s got to get it done here.
“That’s the thing I like about him. He doesn’t come off that way sometimes, but when he gets in a room and sits down, he wants to be a great player. He knows to do that, he’s got to go to work every day. That’s what I like about him.”
In Johnson’s mind, the worst thing he can do is make it sound like Bosa has reached a point where he can stop growing. He and Bosa went through tape of all of the star lineman’s sacks last season, but then Johnson showed him all the ones he missed.
The ones that didn’t come last year are ones that Johnson wants to see this year. That’s one reason the defensive line coach is holding off on any definitive judgments of Bosa’s career until he completes what is expected to be his final season in Columbus.
“We can’t write the story now,” Johnson said.
And that’s true. But all signs and shrugs point to a happy ending.