Larry Johnson has been Penn State's lead recruiter for years, helping the Nittany Lions reel in several blue-chippers, particularly from the Washington D.C./Maryland area. But Johnson's recruiting responsibilities increased this year as Penn State scrambled to hold onto its class. New head coach Bill O'Brien, named to his post Jan. 6, is still juggling two jobs and turned over the recruiting reins to Johnson. Penn State lost several of its top verbal commits to other schools, but held things together enough to sign a class of 19 on Wednesday.
Johnson, the team's defensive line coach and one of two assistants retained from the previous staff, discussed the recruiting process with ESPN.com on Thursday.
Here are his thoughts:
How was this recruiting cycle different from what you've been used to at Penn State?
Larry Johnson: I don't think it was a different cycle, but just the transition from the old staff to the new staff. The only thing different was Coach O'Brien made a decision on every new guy we wanted to offer, just to make sure it was the kind of player he wanted in his system offensively or what we thought defensively. He gave us some parameters and things he was looking for with specific positions. So we had to take those parameters and select players who we wanted to add to the class as we move forward. But the biggest transition was just getting the new staff on board, getting the new staff ready to move forward and really continuing what the old staff had done to that point, moving forward with recruits that we had created relationships with.
When Coach O'Brien came on board, how much of the process was offering new players and how much was trying to keep the committed recruits on board?
LJ: Really, the biggest thing he wanted to do was try to keep the guys who were committed. That was the most important thing, so we had every coach out to see every single recruit who was committed to us. And it was whatever it took, two coaches, three coaches, we did it, and did it by position and did it by areas just to get everybody involved. And then the second weekend in January, it was our biggest recruiting weekend. We had pretty much all those guys on campus, and then Coach O'Brien had a chance to be here and really sat down with each family, each kid for 45 [minutes] to an hour before he left, just to reassure them his commitment to Penn State University and answer questions. That was huge, in the sense of starting out. He was committed to doing it and it worked out well. That was our first priority, hold onto the 14, 15 guys we had and go after more and let them know we're committed. And as we moved along, there were some needs we still had, and we targeted a few kids we could go after and offer and move from there.
Do you think if Coach O'Brien was in place earlier, it would have prevented some recruits from looking elsewhere?
LJ: It's hard to tell. It's hard to really tell if that would have been the factor. The issue is what it was, and parents have a right to make those decisions and what's best for them. Their decision would have been made whether the coach was in place or not in place. The neat thing about it was the guys that stayed with us stayed with us through the whole process. Some kids didn't waver. The focus should really go back to the families and the kids that decided to wait and then stay and then come. It speaks volumes about those people. Some kids say, 'OK, coach, we'll see.' They listened and waited it out and waited for the new coach to be in place. Even though guys took [recruiting] trips during that process, they still came back to one thing. The families realized Penn State is Penn State. You get a great education, and it's a great place to be. Those are the families, and the people we got are very excited about it. Everybody has a choice, and we're just thrilled to death that these guys decided and the families decided to stay with us.
The guys who stayed, did any of that surprise you? Could it have been worse with guys leaving for other programs?
LJ: You never know what's going to happen once the fire starts rolling, one guy changes his mind. Each one of those kids got pressure from the media or their neighbors, 'Why are you still going to Penn State?' We all endured it. It could have been worse, but it wasn't, and I think the biggest key was when Coach O'Brien got named head coach, the first thing he did was call the players, call the parents, talk to them on the phone, and then he was here that first weekend that we had a big official visit. That was huge. They needed to see him, they needed to see his face and they needed to hear his vision of where this program is going. That was a big selling piece. And having all the coaches in place as fast as he did. Normally, it takes a long time to do that, but he had a vision in mind with the staff, and that was in place pretty fast also.
What were your top needs in this class, and how did you do in addressing them?
LJ: We got some really great wideouts. The wideout need we met very well. We needed a running back, and we thought we got a great one in Akeel Lynch. We got some secondary players we wanted, more guys, and we got a couple corners there. We would like to have gotten another corner, but we didn't. Defensive line, I thought we met our needs there. Offensive line is probably one of the only places we came up short in getting the numbers we need to have, but you don't want to take a guy late. You might want to roll it over into next year, and that was our mind-set. When we didn't get the few guys we really wanted to get, we didn't want to move anywhere else. We said, 'Let's wait and see next year, we'll get a couple great guys.' We wanted to get four [offensive linemen] and we got two.
What stands out to you about the wide receivers, guys like Eugene Lewis?
LJ: Coach [Stan] Hixon saw them on videotape and it doesn't take much to figure out what kind of kid [Lewis] is. He's great with the ball in his hands, great, athletic kid, great basketball player, great hands, great competitor. All the things you want in a big wideout, he has. So I think he's a great player. Then you have Trevor Williams, another guy who caught 99 balls last year. Jonathan Warner, he's got great hands, Malik Golden, another very athletic guy also. So I think it's a really outstanding class of wide receivers.
And the defensive linemen, what stands out about them? You'll obviously be working closely with those guys.
LJ: All four of those guys are very athletic, can do a multitude of things. Three of them played basketball, one wrestled, so they're multi-sport guys, great competitors, and they're big and can run. And they're great kids, great students, high-character families. So we're very fortunate to hold onto all those guys. And then we got Evan Schwan, the young D-end, we got him late but he was in our camp for two years, so we knew a little bit about him, but we weren't really sure we were going to take another defensive end. We just felt he was too good of a guy. To not play his junior year and have a great senior year, he's 6-6, you just can't pass up his athletic skills. We were very fortunate to get him late in the process.
How much have you talked the next class and your philosophy going forward with recruiting under Coach O'Brien?
LJ: I think the groundwork has already been laid. He gave us some parameters moving forward with the 2013 class and what we're looking for. That won't take place totally until he gets here next Tuesday, and then we'll really put the groundwork. But he did give us some parameters of where he wanted to go in the next class and the numbers we're looking at. There's some areas we're going to really hone in on. I know one thing is he wants to control the state of Pennsylvania, so we're going to make a lot of effort in-state to really hold these kids in it. And then we're going to attack the surrounding areas as hard as we can on the East Coast and in through Ohio. And then we may jump and recruit some areas we haven't been before, only because it ties to the coaching staff, Georgia, Alabama, Florida a little bit. But our base is going to be Pennsylvania, the D.C. area, the Maryland area, Western Pennsylvania, all the places that we've got a chance to really get some great players from.
So a little more Southeast focused with this staff?
LJ: I think so. We're going to dip down in there. You get one or two guys. The key there is travel, getting here. But we've got some guys on this staff, Coach [Ted] Roof and Coach Mac [McWhorter] have got some expertise in that area, some friendships down in the Alabama, Georgia area. So it makes sense to use their connections and try to get some kids out of there.
How much of your job has been reassuring recruits and their parents about the situation at Penn State and that the program is moving forward?
LJ: Signing this class now, I think we can all move forward. That starts the moving forward for Penn State football, having Coach O'Brien and his staff here, that's been a great starting point. I think now we can really move forward, we really can, and focus on putting together a great class, our kind of people, and ones who want to come to Penn State for all the right things and play at a high level. That's what we're selling right now. And I'd be remiss if I didn't say this: the previous staff, two months prior to this all happening, that's all we sold, Penn State. That's a compliment to those guys. Knowing the situation we were in as coaches, we never stopped selling Penn State. I really think that's why we're here today, because we didn't waver from that and really believe in the system here at Penn State. Now moving forward with this class, people are going to see a difference in what we'll do and how we approach this as we move forward. There are exciting times ahead, I really believe that.