When Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer gets into recruiting mode, it isn’t all about the players. He finds a way to woo coaches, too.
After the departures of co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, Meyer had two vital positions to fill on a defense that allowed an average of 377.4 yards per game and ranked No. 47 in the country.
Now after hiring two new coaches — both of whom spent time at rival schools — Meyer said he is pleased with his new hires.
“We replaced (Vrabel and Withers) with Larry Johnson and Chris Ash, but a couple of comments with those gentlemen we hired. First, they wanted to be here, they both had very, very good jobs and they wanted to be here,” Meyer said to the media Wednesday.
Johnson, who takes over as defensive line coach after 18 years with Penn State, inherits a unit that is set to return all four starters and helped spearhead the country’s ninth ranked running defense.
Johnson said he can’t wait for a chance to work with the group of players.
“Just watching from afar and watching it on videotape, I think it’s a very talented young group,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I can’t wait to get my hands on them. I’ve had two chances to watch them and I’m like a little kid. It’s like I’ve got some new toys to play with. I’m really excited to impart my wisdom to these guys and see how they respond.”
Junior Michael Bennett, sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington and freshman Joey Bosa totaled 24 of OSU’s 42 sacks this past season.
Meyer said he took notice of Johnson when putting together his initial staff at OSU, but didn’t hire him at the time because of Vrabel.
“Larry Johnson is a guy (I have) had great respect for (for) many years,” Meyer said. “Made a phone call two years ago when I was hired here in December whatever year that was, I called Larry. We discussed Ohio State, but then I made the decision to hire Mike Vrabel. We just didn’t have a spot. Noah Spence’s dad called and said Larry (Johnson) would like to talk to you about a position … And the communication was great. We went and met in Indianapolis … and it was a no-brainer on our end.”
Although Johnson’s pedigree as a coach is impressive, his abilities as a recruiter find a way to be noticed.
Johnson said it is his “brand” that allows him to recruit players well.
“I think obviously it’s my niche but I think the brand that I have is, I’m a teacher, I’m a fundamental development kind of guy,” he said. “I want to develop players into outstanding people and players and I think that all goes together.”
Although the defensive line heads into 2014 with momentum, the Buckeyes’ secondary — which is now headed by former Arkansas defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash — doesn’t have quite the same hype.
The unit finished the year ranked No. 112 in the country with an average of 268 yards per game and also loses four regular contributors in redshirt-senior safeties Corey “Pitt” Brown and C.J. Barnett, senior safety Christian Bryant and redshirt-junior cornerback Bradley Roby.
Meyer said it is Ash’s job to work on the pass defense.
“He’s got a serious responsibility. That’s to improve our pass defense. He’ll be in charge of the entire back end of our defense,” Meyer said.
Ash — who was named co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach upon his arrival in Columbus — said Wednesday he understood what Meyer wanted out of him as a coach.
“When we met first, he discussed his vision for the defense and what he wanted to see when the film was turned on … There has been a great tradition of outstanding defenses here at Ohio State, (but) the last couple years it just wasn’t to the level that they wanted. Coach wanted to make some changes and go a different direction,” Ash said.
Ash added that he expects his team to play one way: at full throttle.
“Well, you play fast, you play with reckless abandon, you’re fast, you’re physical, you throw your body around. You play without hesitation,” Ash said. “There’s no confusion, you know exactly what you’re doing. You can react to your key and there’s only one speed: it’s full speed. And that’s the way we gotta play.”
In each of his last two seasons at Wisconsin, before he took the job at Arkansas for what ended up being his lone year there this past season, Ash coached defenses that finished in the top 20 in passing yards allowed per game.
Even with the new additions to the coaching staff, Meyer said he plans on taking a more involved role in the defense in the coming seasons.
“I’m going to be more involved than I ever have been, just to make sure that we get up to standard at Ohio State on (the) defensive side of the ball with emphasis on pass defense,” Meyer said.
The Buckeyes are scheduled to get their 2014 season underway Aug. 30 against Navy at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
But before the season kicks off, there are some things the coaches need to learn about being a part of the OSU program.
“There’s so much to learn. I walked in the first day and someone said, ‘Hey coach, no blue pens,’ and I didn’t know that,” Johnson said. “So there’s a lot of little things that I’ve got to learn pretty fast when you’re talking the team up north … As far as football and all those things, that’s easy. The learning (of) the ins and outs of Ohio State football, that’s the challenge for me.”
But even with all of the new things he has to learn, Johnson said at least one aspect of the change is a plus.
“My wife said I look good in red, so that’s a good start.”