FOS Mag Extra: Senior Moment

Space limitations prevent some stories we assign for FOS the Magazine from making it into the publication. Fortunately, we can run the overflow material on our website. This piece, which explains how PSU assistant Larry Johnson Sr. dominated the state of Maryland in the 2005-06 recruiting battles, is the latest to jump from print to cyberspace.

Antonio Logan-El is dedicated. But he's not insane. Which is why, when summing up the strengths of Penn State assistant coach and ace recruiter Larry Johnson Sr., Logan-El offered a strong yet qualified endorsement.

“He could tell me to jump off a bridge and I'd at least think about it,” the Forestville (Md.) High product said. “And if I'm thinking about it, that's saying a lot.”

Johnson's all-out assault on Maryland, where he plucked Logan-El and six more of the state's top 11 players out from under the noses of the University of Maryland staff, left more than a few Terrapin fans feeling like they wanted to jump from a bridge. Or push U of M coach Ralph Friedgen, who signed just two of his state's top 11 players, off one.

So why was Johnson so successful in Maryland this year, prompting Joe Paterno to say “Larry did a great job” and another assistant to describe Johnson as “a hero” in putting this class together?

It started with his strong roots in the state. Johnson was an assistant coach at Lackey High in LaPlata in 1974. From 1975-91, he was the head coach at McDonough High in Pomfret, winning three state championships in that period. From there he moved on to T.C. Williams High in nearby Alexandria, Va., until 1994. He then spent two seasons as an assistant principal at LaPlata (Md.) High before joining the Penn State staff in 1996.

Two of the kids he brought out of Maryland this year were cornerback A.J. Wallace and offensive lineman J.B. Walton. They attended McDonough and Lackey, respectively.

“He coached at my school,” Wallace said. “So when he came in and talked to me, it was heart to heart. I respect him a lot.”

Added Walton: “He already knew my mom and dad and uncle. So he was a part of the family before everything happened to me. … We're in his old backyard, so he knew he had a chance to get us.”

But there is more to it than that. Over the past several years, Johnson has developed a reputation as a top developer of NFL defensive linemen. In the 2003 NFL draft, three of his former players — Jimmy Kennedy, Michael Haynes and Anthony Adams - were selected in the first two rounds.

This year, end Tamba Hali was a consensus All-American and projects as a certain first-round pick. Tackle Scott Paxson, a first-team All-Big Ten pick, and end Matthew Rice also figure to be drafted.

And don't forget about Johnson's son, Larry Jr., a Penn State product who set the Kansas City Chief's single-season rushing record while earning a spot in the Pro Bowl.

“We all know that he's proven to be able to get the job done with his players taking it to the next level,” said Lebanon, Pa., standout defensive lineman Jared Odrick, another Johnson target this year.

Fate was also on Penn State's side this recruiting season when it came to pulling players out of Maryland. It just so happened that state was blessed with its strongest senior class in years, if not decades. Johnson had slowly but surely made a series of pre-emptive strikes leading up to this blitz, grabbing strong contributors like quarterback Zack Mills, defensive back Anwar Phillips and Rice.

Last year Johnson scooped up only one player from Maryland. But receiver Derrick Williams was rated as one of the best recruits in the nation, and the sudden impact he made in 2005 on a resurgent Nittany Lion squad that rolled to 11-1 and an Orange Bowl win caught everyone's eye.

“We all knew it was a great fit,” said linebacker Bani Gbadyu from Quince Orchard High in Gaithersburg. “It is a great environment, close to home, with the possibility of playing early.”

All of these factors came into play, and Johnson, whom players say goes out of his way to paint a realistic picture of life in the Penn State football program, pulled it all together in a neat little package.

“Coach Johnson is great,” said defensive tackle Phillip Taylor of Gwynn Park High in Brandywine. “He doesn't beat around the bush. He's an open, outgoing guy, and he's not going to blow any smoke.”

“You have to meet him to understand what a lot of us feel about him,” said Logan-El, his mom standing nearby and nodding in agreement. “He's a trustworthy guy. He's a guy you look up to and if you need him, he's going to be there, no matter what.”

Come hell or high water.

Or anything else running beneath the bridge.

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