Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. spoke with reporters via teleconference on Thursday afternoon. The conversation often steered to his intense love for his players and the university as a whole.
Read the entire transcript from the call, right here:
How close were you to not returning to the coaching staff at the end of last season? And, how long do you want to continue coaching and have you given it much thought?
LJ: I'll tell you, it's one year at a time for me. I don't think that far ahead about how many more years I want to go. I've got a plan in my mind, but I really haven't thought about that longterm. I'm going to be here as long as coach O'Brien wants me here, I do know that. From there, I have a timetable in my mind, but certainly right now my focus is trying to stay here and do as much as I can for Penn State and this Penn State football team.
As far as the first question about making my decision, really I had some ideas about what I wanted to do where I was going to really get out of coaching in general and do some other things. Didn't entertain the phone calls, didn't entertain any job offers at that time and didn't really get into that. But I just felt that I owed it to my guys in my room and Penn State University and this football team to have an opportunity to talk to coach O'Brien. From that conversation is the reason why I'm still here, and my commitment to my players and the Penn State football program.
The conversation with Bill, what did he say that made you want to stay?
LJ: It wasn't necessarily one thing and it wasn't like we sat down and did any soul-searching with each other, we just talked as two men and two coaches about situation football, talked about my personal beliefs and those kinds of things. He said he'd love to have me on his staff. I think that's probably the most detail I can give you, but it wasn't something that we talked for hours and hours about a lot of things. It was just the two of us kind of met and we both had the same idea and belief in Penn State University and I believed in where he was going with the program. To be honest, I'm glad I'm here because I think he's done an outstanding job.
You've coached a bunch of NFL-caliber linemen. Does Deion Barnes remind you of anyone specifically? What has his relationship with Sean Stanley been like?
LJ: It's a very close room, first of all. I realize all of my guys are very close knit and it's just kind of how we brand the room. I think he's got some really good skill sets and I think down the road, he's going to be a really special player. He reminds me a lot of Michael Haynes a little bit when Mike was coming through here. Tamba Hali's skill set and he's using his hands very well. He's just a young kid, so he's got some growth to do but he certainly has done a great job to be able to walk on the field and do the things he's done thus far as a young player. So I think his future is really, really bright here at Penn State.
What has this last year been like for you? I'm sure you never anticipated any of this unfolding the way it has.
LJ: To be honest with you, I'm having a great time. I really am. This is really a special year and it's special for a lot of reasons. You have to be in the locker room to see our players and see how hard they work, how resilient they are, how they overcome, and how they understand the word perseverance now. Really, it's just special to be around that. Never of anything I've ever done or coached in all my career, I've been around such committed young men as these guys are and have the focus of such young people. For me, it's been really exciting just to see them grow every single day and continue to believe in one cause, have passion in what they do and a certain amount of respect for each other. I think that says a lot about leadership but also about the kind of guys we have in that locker room. So, to me, it's been a very special year to see our guys go through what they're going through now as a football team.
What was the trickiest part of the transition to Coach Roof's defense?
LJ: Just terminology. I call it one thing, he calls it another thing, but that's typical playbook stuff. Right now, it's not an issue. It's just something that he uses and we used in the past and the terminology, but that's probably the biggest thing is the language is different and what you call things. But, once you get that, it's pretty easy because football is football and whether you play a three man or four man, you do what you do. That's been the biggest challenge is adjusting to the new words and terminology. But once that's done, it's pretty easy.
How long does it take to transition to that?
LJ: Not as long. Once you understand the system, you understand the toolbox and once you understand the toolbox, everything goes together. It's pretty simple. Obviously it's not simple, but it's pretty easy to learn because you call it apple and we might call it orange, but it's the same stunt. So, you just kind of transfer the words. But, you're not changing anything or changing teaching. You're just changing the concept of what we're doing. About a week until you get the playbook when you have it early, then through the spring and the summer helped me, but by the time our players got here, we were ready to go.
What do you think it is about yourself that allow to create the tight bond that you have with so many of your players?
LJ: In coaching and life and whatever job you have, you've gotta show people you care, and I think I care. I care about them not only as football players but as young men. I know I'm not afraid to show my love and my passion. I'm not afraid to cry in front of my players because I'm going to be myself and who I am. I think I'm very honest with my players also, so I think that's the foundation of building a great relationship with young players. Being honest and upright. They know I'm tough, and I want them to be the best. Being the best, I'm going to push them to a level they've never been before, and at the end of the day, you walk off the field, you hug them and say, 'What a great job you've done.' I think our players understand that. I think my guys in my room understand that. I think our relationship is really built on trust and caring. I'm not afraid to tell them I love them. And their not afraid to say back, 'Hey coach, I love you too.' I think that's because we know each other. I think that starts from day one. You get to know them when you recruit them, you get to know their parents, you get to know their lives and every day, you continue to build on that, so I think that's what makes the room very special.
Is there a longterm reward in the relationships you have with the guys that go on and succeed?
LJ: No question. Yeah. There's a lot of rewards, because those guys never stop coming back. I saw Devon Still on the sideline and we embraced like we'd never seen each other in our life. That shows not only how much we care for each other, but really it's just appreciation of what you've done and touched their lives. Hopefully, as they go through their lives, there will be something that I said or that they said that I'll reflect and has changed my life as I go every day. That's been a case in a lot of cases. I've got a lot of players that I stay in contact with. Courtney Brown is a prime example. I probably talk to him or text him once a week. He's going to show up at the Nebraska game. He comes here, he stays at the house. Those kinds of relationships never go away. They really don't.
Jordan Hill had a very good season last year. What is he doing even better this year as a player?
LJ: I think when you understand schemes and you understand blocking, just having that one year experience, you play as a young player and I tell guys all the time that it's important from your junior to your senior year to go another notch. You can flatline as a junior and never get better as a senior, and he's gotten better. He's stronger, his weight is down from where it was last year, he's in great shape, and all that adds to his ability to play fast, and I think that's the reason why he's having such a great year because he's changed himself, not only physically but he's grown and matured a lot in the football sense of the game.
Deion Barnes didn't grow up in the nicest neighborhood. What was it like recruiting him and did you get a sense that this was a mature guy beyond his years, based on what he's seen and what he grew up around?
LJ: I think so. Recruiting Deion was an absolute pleasure because every day, he'd refresh with you. He was so focused with what he wanted to do. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He knew what he wanted to accomplish, and not a lot of young guys can do that and say that so early. He was good at that. Going in and talking to him was always a lot of fun because he was always focused. He goes up forward to make his announcement, and I hear this later from the coach, that when he chose to come to Penn State, he's got a T-shirt on that he played his junior football in, he's got a hat on that played at high school, and then he put a Penn State hat on to say this is where I'm going. That takes some process to think that out. Instead of doing the whole hat thing, he appreciated everybody that was a part of his life until now, and I think that says a lot about who he is as a person. Great mom and dad for support, also. Deion knew what was around him, but he also knew where he wanted to be and I think that speaks volumes of him as a young man.
Can you elaborate on the closeness of this defensive line group?
LJ: We do a lot of things together. We eat together at my house a lot. In the summer time or anytime, Thanksgiving, when the guys can't get home they're at my place eating. But, you build that family environment from day one and that's the way it's always been. It's not just been this group, but every group I've coached, we've built on a family concept of guys playing together, because I want them to know the guy next to them. When you do that, they'll play harder for each other, and I think that's the important thing. We try to create a brand of family hood so that our kids can be close together. Get to know each other. It's something that every day we work on that. We really do.
How long have you known Sean Stanley and what has it been like seeing his development on and off the field?
LJ: It's been really nice. I recruited Sean out of high school and saw him when he moved to Maryland his sophomore year. He was really quiet. I call him the 'Quiet Storm.' He doesn't talk very much, but he'll smile and then he'll crack a joke, but he's pretty serious about being a good football player. He's matured so much in the last couple of years, and now I think his tree is really full now because he's doing some really nice things. Not only on the field, but also, off the field and in the classroom. So he's now really a complete player. That's what you want to see in college. You want to see kids grow into young men and that's what Sean has done. I'm really happy to see where he's at not only as a football player, but where he's at in his life right now. I think that's really special.
Was the Ohio State game one of his best and is his back now close to full strength?
LJ: I think he's back to full strength. It's funny you say that, we were watching the Purdue game last year and I'll tell you, he had some great plays from the Purdue game last year. We were watching on tape yesterday and I said, 'Man, Sean, you had a great game in the Purdue game.' I thought he played very well in the Ohio State game. I thought he played physical, but that's Sean. You can't count him out. You just can't count him out.
The college offense has changed year to year, as a defensive line coach, can you speak to the evolution of D1 defensive linemen. Are you recruiting a different kind of athlete? Are you coaching them differently? Has a lot changed in terms of what offenses are doing?
LJ: Not recruiting different guys. I think you've gotta recruit what fits in the Penn State mold, so we're going to continue to do that. Great high character guys, guys willing to graduate and get an education and do great things. So, that guy is going to stay the same. But, you have to change your coaching style in the sense of what we do versus a spread team because you've got a run spread team and you've got a throwing spread team. And, you know, you're not getting a hit on him because the ball is out so quick, so now you've gotta adjust and get your hands up and adjust to the three-step game. Then you've gotta play jailbreak screens. So, there's a lot of things that revolve around the spread offense that you've gotta teach them because they do so much and make you defend so much on the field. But, not the athlete as much as it is coaching different areas. You're used to getting to the quarterback fifteen or sixteen times and hitting him at least, but now the ball is out so quick, that's not happening. So, we have to change the game from up front by getting our hands up, batting balls down and those kinds of things.
How do you see Bill O'Brien trying to get better and improving every day and putting that into action?
LJ: I think with the way we practice. We have a very fast practice format. We get at it pretty hard and he's done a great job of taking care of the players and the time that we're on the field. But, you can see improvement every day. Our kids are pretty focused, and he does a great job of keeping them focused in the sense of where we are with this coaching staff. I think that's why we are where we are right now in the sense that every day, we're fighting to get better. We really are fighting to get better and you can see that in our players every day in practice or on paper or in the video room and ways to get better. I think that's what's happening here every single day and that's why the focus is there.
Do you see that out of the coaching staff too?
LJ: Oh, no question. I think that's part of coaching that you find so much fun, at least in my case. Every day you try to find something to give these kids an advantage to make them better. It all falls back on us. We're not working these late hours just because we're sitting here. We're working these late hours to try to find ways to improve our players, and I think that's what makes this group really, really special because every coach is doing that.
What have you seen from Purdue's offensive line on tape and the right guard, Rob Kugler, in particular?
LJ: I think it's a typical Big Ten offensive line. Very athletic, very big, very long. Their offense really helps them in the offensive scheme with the things they do in the sense that the center has played a lot of plays, Rich has played a lot of plays, the guard has played a lot of plays, and Trevor has played a lot of plays. We played against these guys last year, so I think there's a really good balanced offensive line and their offensive scheme has really helped them out because you don't have to protect very long because the ball is out quick. Then the run game is really just creating a crack and letting the back run. It's a very balanced offensive line, and they've got a chance to go the distance at any time because they've got great skill kids.
Anything in particular from Rob Kugler?
LJ: Yeah, I think he's a very athletic guy. I think he's one of those players that we've gotta find a way to get around him because he's a very athletic guy playing at the guard position.
Do you still have aspirations to be a head coach, and if not, was it hard to reconcile that for you?
LJ: I appreciate the question. I'm a very simple guy in the sense that I know what I want to do. Being a head coach is not going to be anything that is going to satisfy me, and I'm OK with that. I just want to be the best coach I can be, and being that drives me every day, that I create a brand that is very special as a football coach. Coaching the defensive line is what I do, and I'm OK with that. I'm not putting out applications at the end of the season to find a head coaching job. I am really happy where I'm at. It's a great town, great place, I'm close to my grandkids, and so my focus has all changed because I have everything I want here. I don't want to sound cornball, but I am really happy here at Penn State University and I'm happy with what I'm doing, and I'm really happy coaching the players that I have in my room. That keeps my focus, so I'm OK with not having the head coaching title to my name. I'm OK being just who I am. And I really appreciate your question.
Is Sean serving as a mentor to Deion reflective of that maturity he has?
LJ: No question about it. Not only to Deion, but every young player. It's nice to see the senior guys talking to the young players away from me and helping them out with their technique and their focus. We've got this thing in the room where an older player sits with a younger player, and you can see the growth of that because they help and they're showing them how to take notes, how to watch video tape, and Sean has been just outstanding, not only to Deion and all the other young players, but every guy in the room he's kind of touched them because he's been through it, and I think that's what's really special about Sean.
What has been the biggest difference with this team's identity compared to last season?
LJ: I think it's a fair question but I really don't think you can compare last season to this season because it's all different. It really is. It's different. The players are different, the focus is different, and what we're coming out of is different. And so, I think it's two different football teams. I don't want to sound like I'm not answering your question, but I would never compare this year's team to last year's team. I think this is a special football team. I've been a part of some special football teams, but I think this group of guys, especially because of what they're coming out of and what they're doing as a football team, and their belief in what Coach O'Brien is teaching and the one team concept. Mind you, these players could have picked up and walked out of here, and they didn't. They stayed here for a reason, and I think that makes them very special. At the end of the day, they're going to have a great testimony to tell about what they've done and what they're coming out of because they stayed. I think that's what makes this group special. I don't think you can compare them, because it's different.
When the sanctions came down, did the players come to you for advice? How many of those conversations did you have and what advice did you give to those guys?
LJ: They were personal conversations, but I did talk to several guys. There were guys in my room and guys outside my room, and it was the same message. The reason why they came to Penn State, what's here, that has not changed and they'll still get to do what they wanted to do, so that was really the message, and I really just reinforced that to every player. They all had questions, which is normal, but I think every coach addressed those issues here and I think that's what's really special about this coaching staff. They understand it with Coach O'Brien's leadership.
Deion said he watches film of a couple different NFL guys. Is that something you recommend as his coach to watch a certain guy, or is that something he sought out on his own?
LJ: It's a little bit of both. I have a library with some of the top players that are defensive linemen in the NFL. I have video tape of a lot of those guys and always use those guys as reference if it relates to some technique I'm trying to get over on a player to see. Tamba Hali, he's got a highlight reel that my players probably watch every year with what he does technique-wise rushing the passer. There's always the special guys that players say, 'Coach, do you got a video of so-and-so?' and I'll go to the archives, pull it out and bring it in and show it to them. I like my guys to be the best, so you've got to show them the best. If there's something we can learn or do to make Deion better or Sean better or make Zettel better, you have to do it as a coach, so we do a lot of that, sharing information about the best players.
What does Sean playing through the back injury say about him?
LJ: It just tells you how tough he is. And the fact that he can endure pain and is willing to do anything for the football team. Sean, he's kind of been that way. He's just steady. You might not know he's there, but he's there. It says a lot about his character, it really does.
Have you started to think about that day when Wisconsin is coming to town and that's going to be it for Jordan and Sean and Pete Massaro and Terry? Do these guys resonate with you maybe a little more than other groups, maybe not because of their talent but because of all they've been through?
LJ: Yeah, I think you're right on. That's a great analysis. It's going to be a tough day for LJ, for Coach J, it's going to be a tough day. It was tough the other day, we were talking about the reason why we're playing so hard is because of our seniors and because of their leadership. It will be a very emotional day for me because I know these guys and they're connected to me in a different way. So, no, I'm not looking forward to it. I'm looking forward the Wisconsin game but I'm not looking forward to the end of the year because it will be the last time those guys put the blue and white on, and they're a very, very, special group of kids.
How rewarding was it to see Pete Massaro back starting last week and picking up a sack after all the injuries?
LJ: I'll tell you what, you see him come back and he really played at a high level. It's like sitting in the summer and having ice cream. It's kind of a relaxing cool to see a guy that comes back that has a lot of football left in him. I'm a big Pete Massaro fan because he worked so hard to go through something and adversity. Every day he works and each day he's getting better and better. So, no, I'm really happy that Pete is back and we certainly can use him. He's a team player and doing the things he's doing on the field.
What role does food play in bringing you together with your players?
LJ: I think it's important. What is one thing that family does? They sit around the table and talk and eat and enjoy fellowship and one of the rules we have when they come over to the house to visit is that we don't talk football. We laugh, we let them play games or pool or we just watch games or watch football or a movie… Anything to relax them, because that's the environment you get to know them better when they're being themselves. That's what they love. Plus, when they come over to eat, they get to take the food that's left over and I think they like that too that they get to take everything home. It's kind of neat. I've had some great conversation and a lot of fun with those guys. They come over to visit and just listen and talk because you get to know them through that process and it's kind of neat.
What's your relationship like with Ron Vanderlinden and what type of football coach is he?
LJ: Not only is Ron a great football coach, but he's a great spiritual man, and I think our relationship gets stronger every day because we both see each other a lot and we understand what we're going through. We're very fortunate to be a part of this football staff, this great staff that's here now, but our relationship is outstanding because we work together because we have the front seven. That means a lot in the sense of what we're working and teaching and working together. Ron is a great football coach and I'm just glad I continue to have a chance to work with him because I learn a lot from him as a football coach.
With the scholarship restrictions, what kind of challenge does that pose to you when you're out recruiting? And, how have you been perceived thus far, especially from the schools you've built strong relationships with through the years?
LJ: I think as a staff, I think coach O'Brien is on the right beat. We gotta get the right fifteen. We've gotta get the right fifteen that fits into what we're doing and what we're looking for, and we've gotta be right on in our evaluation of those players that we choose to give an invitation. That's critical. Believe this or not, the coaches in my area are all reaching out. From day one, 'Coach, anybody we've got, you guys have got the first shot at them.' And so the support in my area and probably every coach's area has been kind of overwhelming of guys calling to say, 'Coach, we're with you guys. You're always going to have a chance to recruit my players.' I think that's really special that you have that kind of bond in the areas that I've been in, and every coach probably has the same thing. Coaches are really reaching out to us and saying, 'Coach, I've got a player for you.' I think it will be tough but we'll have a pretty easy time in finding the right fifteen players that fit what we're looking for at Penn State University.