Lions' Johnson a not-so-secret sales weapon

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson proved vital in holding together Penn State's recruits under a new head coach.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson proved vital in holding together Penn State's recruits under a new head coach. (ANDY COLWELL / Associated Press)
Posted: February 02, 2012

Without a head coach for months and without program certainty in the future, Penn State's 2012 recruiting class could have been a lost cause.

But throughout the tumultuous recruiting process during the Nittany Lions' most trying year, Larry Johnson, arguably the team's best recruiter, remained. And because of his presence, the Lions were still able to bring in what the coaches called an extremely successful 2012 class.

On national signing day Wednesday, with the Lions snagging 19 incoming freshmen, fellow assistants new and old couldn't say enough about the Penn State defensive line coach and his ability to retain those high school athletes with murky minds about the university's future.

Coaches called Johnson's belief in Penn State vital for how he managed to keep the future Lions' interests in Penn State football when many outsiders had already lost faith.

"Every recruit that I've talked to has mentioned his name as a reason why they either held their commitment or came on their visit," said Charles London, the running backs coach and new recruiting coordinator. "He's well-respected in the area, and he's been vital to this class."

With former recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary off the staff, Johnson served as the Lions' acting recruiting coordinator while Tom Bradley headed the team after replacing Joe Paterno.

Even after current head coach Bill O'Brien was hired and continued his job as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, Johnson remained in constant contact with recruits. He coordinated meetings with players' parents and O'Brien. He reminded them that though a new coaching regime was in place the Penn State mantra of academics before athletics would always be a constant.

"Well, you're selling Penn State University. That's the biggest thing," Johnson said. "The parents and the kids that stayed with us, they are Penn State people. They stayed with us for all the right reasons. They didn't waiver. They hung around to see what was going to happen."

During his 17 years with the Lions, 13 as the defensive line coach, Johnson has been the man behind the development of seven first-team All-Americans in the last 12 years, including consensus first-team defensive tackle Devon Still in 2011.

Whether they were continuing to recruit or not, most of the Paterno coaching staff wouldn't be around come 2012. And in Johnson, along with retained linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, the Lions were able to smoothly transition recruits from one era to the next without much of a struggle.

"Larry did an excelling job of handling the recruiting and keeping it going, both him and Ron. It's been a godsend," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "Those two have been outstanding. It was really good to have those two guys to lean on."

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