When Penn State found itself in the unenviable position of having to replace Joe Paterno, the process took months before PSU landed New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. O'Brien was a bit of an unknown quantity in the college football world, but he quickly ingratiated himself to the Nittany Lion faithful with one swift decision: retaining defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Sr.
Why is Johnson such a big deal? Simply put, his recruiting has been the key to Penn State's success over the last decade—and it's paying off again.
Johnson is in his 17th year of coaching at Penn State and his 13th straight as defensive line coach (he previously coached defensive ends and special teams). Under his tutelage, Penn State's defensive front has been led by first-team consensus All-Americans Courtney Brown, Tamba Hali, Michael Haynes, Jimmy Kennedy and most recently, Devon Still. Jared Odrick and Aaron Maybin also made All-American lists after being coached by Johnson.
In terms of recruiting, Johnson has been the leader of Penn State's efforts for years. Operating primarily in the Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania area, Rivals.com lists Johnson as the primary recruiter for about five signees a year (this seems low, but it's the data at hand), and his presence has been crucial in landing other high-profile defensive line targets.
Johnson's presence as a recruiting ace continues to be felt to this day, as he helped land the verbal commitment superstar TE prospect Adam Breneman. Breneman had been a target of PSU long before the scandal that ended with Paterno's firing, and it was Johnson's continued recruiting through the hiring process that kept Penn State on the prospect's radar.
Johnson's connection to Penn State goes beyond mere loyalty through longevity. His son, Larry Johnson Jr., was indeed the same that ran for over 2,000 yards for Penn State in 2002, and his younger son, Tony, was a starting wide receiver for PSU who graduated in 2003.
There's no telling what Johnson's future holds; he turned down an offer to be Illinois' defensive coordinator three years ago, and he interviewed for the Penn State head coaching job before O'Brien was hired. So perhaps there's some change in the offing somewhere down the line. For now, he's blue and white through and through, and that's very good news for Penn State as it rebuilds.
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