A Welcome Return

Veteran defensive linemen are happy their position coach turned down an offer to leave Penn State for Illinois.

It's hard to say with the start of the regular season still four months away just how good Penn State's revamped defensive line will be this fall. But this much seems certain: It'll be better than it would have been if assistant coach Larry Johnson had left to become defensive coordinator at Illinois.

So say his players, who are happy to have Johnson around after weeks of off-season speculation that he might be leaving for Champaign.

“When you have a coach who's had so much success at one position, especially at D-line where it's hard to motivate big guys, it definitely would have hurt for him to leave,” junior defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu said. “We all look up to him as a father figure, not only as a coach. What he brings to the table isn't just his coaching but his inspiration. He treats the defensive linemen as a family.”

Johnson, a member of Penn State's staff since 1996, has been credited with developing the line into one of the team's consistent strengths. Conventional wisdom has for some time held that he would eventually grow tired of being a position coach and would want to make the logical next step to a coordinator spot, which would in turn serve as a springboard to a head coaching job.

When Illinois went looking for new a defensive coordinator a few months ago, it seemed as though that moment had arrived. But Johnson decided to stay at Penn State, citing among other things his relationship with his players. “When it came down to it, my love for my players, the university and the Penn State family kept me here,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Those feelings are definitely mutual. Johnson, players say, has mastered the art of motivation. He pushes them hard on the practice field, then invites them to his house for dinner.

“He creates a real family atmosphere, which makes you want to fight for him and play for him more,” Ogbu said. “Losing that would definitely have hurt us this year. … If he would have left for Illinois, I don't think whoever came in would have automatically had the kind of success he's had. He's laid such a foundation for the D-line, it's crazy.”

Ogbu's fellow starter at defensive tackle, senior Jared Odrick, said he doesn't think the Nittany Lions would have changed their practice routine much had Johnson left, but he does think the atmosphere around the team would have been “drastically different.”

“I've been around three years and I know all the Coach J. drills,” Odrick said. “I really don't think there would be a drop-off in the drills we do, but it would have definitely affected us him not being here.”


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