Ohio State football: ‘Alpha dog’ emerging for Buckeyes’ defensive front?

COLUMBUS -- Ohio State football coach Ryan Day said he likes the depth of the defensive line but wants to see some elite playmakers emerge from the group.

So does their position coach.

“In every group you’ve got to have an alpha dog, right?” long-time assistant Larry Johnson said. “We’ve got to have that one guy committed to (making big plays). I think it’s important.”

He added that he believes he has identified such a player in his group, but he only winked when asked who it might be.

“You can’t name the alpha dog,” he said. “That’s something you’ve gotta see and watch.”

After that discussion, he was willing to reveal who is working to be the team’s “Leo” defensive end.

A new position that is part of Jim Knowles’ defense, the Leo is a hybrid role intended to be a chess piece for the defensive coordinator to deploy in different spots.

The idea is to disrupt the offensive blocking scheme and create play-making opportunities for a standout player (and others if the offense reacts to the Leo).

A handful of potential Leos exist on the roster thanks to Johnson’s recruiting prowess, but the three in the running at the moment for the role are ends Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Jack Sawyer and linebacker Palaie Gaoteote.

There is no guarantee a Leo is on the field, though, as Knowles said in the spring someone has to earn the role.

In lieu of using a Leo, Knowles said the defense would simply deploy a more traditional edge player called the “Jack.”

“That’s outside of my room -- the training those guys -- because it’s really a hybrid defensive end kind of guy,” Johnson said.

Going back to his days as an assistant at Penn State, Johnson has always been known as a purveyor of the four-man defensive front.

Early in his tenure at Ohio State, he explained he likes to deploy players that way because it best allows them to take advantage of their athleticism.

The Knowles defense has a hybrid front that will sometimes resemble more like a three-man look, and at least some of the linemen are likely to spend more time filling gaps than penetrating up field.

However, the Leo appears to align with Johnson’s philosophy since it also presents opportunities for athletes to do their thing in space.

“I like the new tool,” Johnson said of the Leo. “I like what we’re doing right now. Coach Knowles has got a great system. I like how it allows guys who have some ability to play. I think that’s cool. I think that’s what this defense is all about. He’s really big on rush and coverage together. That’s all he talks about. That’s really cool. Now the guys understand we rush, you cover and we’ll all be successful. I think our guys love it. I think they love the system and all that it brings to the table.”

Johnson is the lone holdover from the 2021 defensive staff.

Don’t call him that, though.

“It’s not a fact of being the lone holdover,” Johnson said. “It’s just the fact of I’m a coach. That’s the most important thing. I was hired to coach football, and that’s what I’m going to do. When the day comes that I can’t coach, I won’t coach, but right now I’m hired to be a coach. So that doesn’t bother me. I know I have a job to do as a coach, to make my unit the best unit, so that’s what motivates me.”

The 69-year-old also said he has not considered retirement despite having been in the business for more than five decades (and annual rumors to the contrary that are sometimes used against him in recruiting).

“People ask that question all the time,” Johnson said. “My retirement plan is way away from here. I enjoy coaching, and the day that I stop enjoying coaching and having a passion for what I do then I’ll do that, but I don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘Well, this is it.’ I don’t do that. That’s not the way I function.

“I get up every morning dying to get into this building and coach those guys. Now when I can’t do that anymore, it will tell me. Right now I’m not telling myself anything. I gotta get going. It’s time to go play a game.”

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