Larry Johnson: Filling the Gap

Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson is faced with the task of replacing at least one veteran tackle who has been lost from the team for disciplinary reasons. Always a cool customer, Johnson is not about to panic.

So how does the Penn State coaching staff plan to adjust to the loss of Ed Johnson, the run-stuffing defensive tackle who has been expelled from school through the end of the fall semester?

The first step is remaining cool. The disciplinary issue that led to Johnson's expulsion also prevented him from playing in the spring. Likewise, fellow veteran defensive tackle Scott Paxson missed most of the drills due to off-field issues. Which meant defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who favors rotating eight or more defensive linemen in the course of a game, had a chance to see some of his younger players in extended action.

“That was great,” Johnson said in a one-on-one interview with Fight On State in York Friday. “The young guys are going to have to step up. So hopefully [playing] during the spring and getting a chance to play during the season [in 2004] really helped us. It's pretty good to be able to do that. We're very fortunate to be able to rotate guys in, play eight guys. In the long run it's going to help us out.”

Added PSU head coach Joe Paterno: “Somebody's going to have to step up, [such as] Elijah Robinson. There's a kid by the name of [Steve] Roach, if I can kick him in the rear end and get him to move a little bit. … We may have to move a kid or two from offense on defense, and maybe have a kid play both sides. But if we stay healthy, we're OK.”

Robinson is a sophomore who played in three games last season. Roach is a redshirt junior who played in two games. Redshirt freshman Mike Lucian, and walk-ons Tommy Schnell (a 6-foot-5, 294-pounder) and Blase Iorio all saw action at DT in the spring and reportedly played well.

Johnson is anxious to see if any or all keep it up in the preseason.

“It's going to be interesting, it really is,” he said. “I'm really excited about where we are defensive line-wise. Unfortunately, losing Ed [hurts], but I think there are some young kids who are going to step to the front and do a great job for us.”

Junior Jay Alford was one of the stars of the spring, taking home the O'Hora Award as the defense's most improved player. But he is a three-technique tackle, meaning he plays over the guard to the tight end side. Ed Johnson was a one-technique tackle, meaning he played over the center.

Neither Paterno nor Larry Johnson mentioned Paxson when discussing the defensive line, an indication he is still in the staff's dreaded doghouse. Paxson started every game last season but split time with Ed Johnson and Alford. Whether Paxson returns to the starting lineup remains to be seen, but Larry Johnson believes it is imperative to get at least one consistent one-technique tackle to complement Alford.

“No question about it, you have to balance it out,” he said. “When you had Anthony Adams and Jimmy Kennedy, they balanced each other. Hopefully we can get the same thing going with some young kids stepping up and playing really strong at nose and get Jay a chance to have some fun playing the three technique.”

If help is needed from the offensive line, it will likely come in the form of junior John Shaw, redshirt freshman Rich Ohrnberger and/or redshirt frosh A.Q. Shipley. Shipley has a chance to start at center, however, so don't expect him to move back to defense full-time.

“Shipley has good football instincts and probably would have a chance to play some defense if we need him,” Paterno said.

There has been much friendly debate between the offensive and defensive staffs over where to play Shipley. When asked where the intense freshman would land, Johnson smiled and said, “Still unknown.”

Luckily for the defensive staff, there are several known commodities on the line. Namely, senior ends Lavon Chisley, Tamba Hali and Matthew Rice. However things play out with the one-technique tackles, Johnson and company can take solace in the fact that the trio of veteran ends will help mitigate any problems.

“It's a bonus, it really is,” Johnson said. “You can't find three outstanding players [like that]. I've coached better players individually. As a group, there is not one guy who is really outstanding. All three of them bring so many different things to the table, which is really neat.”


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