COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s last defensive line coach was an expletive-bombing, tobacco-chewing, head-butting dynamo.
Life under the new boss is, well, different.
For one, Larry Johnson does not curse. Coach J, as players call the 61-year-old football lifer, is also more patient.
What if a daring soul had addressed former Buckeyes line coach Mike Vrabel as Coach V?
"That would be bad," sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa said, smiling. "I'm trying not to think about it."
"[Johnson] is more positive, I dare say," he added.
Don’t get the players wrong. They liked Vrabel, who left in January to become the linebackers coach for the Houston Texans. They looked up to the former all-pro lineman who could flash three Super Bowl rings and fed off of his fire, including the time he split open his face head-butting a helmeted player before the Michigan game in 2012.
Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett called Vrabel and Johnson "great coaches."
"They both bring a lot of energy," he said. "They care, they love you, they're going to get after you if you mess up. But they have their own different styles. They teach the same kind of thing, just in different ways."
It is the difference between a coach in Vrabel who came to OSU in 2011 after a 14-year NFL playing career and a lifelong teacher. Players embrace Johnson’s way too and hope to show it with a dominant season this fall.
Johnson, who spent 11 years as high school coach in Maryland and the past 18 years as an assistant at Penn State, inherits the Buckeyes’ deepest and best unit. OSU returns all four starters from a line that stood as the strength of an unsteady defense last year.
The rotation will include Bosa, a reigning freshman All-American who coach Urban Meyer has said could be as good as any lineman he’s coached; Bennett, who had seven of the Buckeyes’ 42 sacks last season; junior Adolphus Washington, a former five-star end who teammates say has regularly shook double teams at his new full-time spot on the interior this spring; and all-conference junior Noah Spence, who will return in Week 3 after serving a Big Ten suspension stemming from a reported positive test for ecstasy.
This year, though, the Buckeyes plan to mine their depth, keeping their stars fresh for when it matters most. Don’t be surprised if backup ends Tyquan Lewis, Steve Miller, and Jamal Marcus, and tackles Tommy Schutt and Donovan Munger see 30 or so snaps per game.
"I've sold them on the idea that there are going to be 8,9 guys," he said. "The game has changed. You're talking about spread offense, quick snaps, so that number of plays [in a game] can go from 65 to 90 really quick. You add that times 12 games, that's a lot of football. What I want to do is play fresh. I want to play eight or nine guys every time and be relentless. That way every guy can play as hard as they can every play. That's how you play defense."
So far, Johnson said his new charges are "drinking the Kool-Aid." It is no surprise. His hire represented a major coup. For all the acclaim Johnson receives as a salesman — he was named Rivals.com’s national recruiter of the year in 2006 — he is also regarded as one of the nation’s top talent developers. Six of his linemen at Penn State went in the first round of the NFL draft, from top overall pick Courtney Brown in 2000 to Jared Odrick in 2010.
Now, having donated his Penn State gear to the Salvation Army, Johnson’s latest line could be one of his best yet.
"They believe in what we’re doing,” Johnson said.
“They want to know how to get better. Not how to be good players, how to be great players. That sense of raising the bar, I’m real excited about that.”