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Penn State Football: LJ Leaves for Ohio State; PSU Hires Vandy OC Donovan, DL Coach Spencer

by on January 13, 2014 10:30 PM

Penn State is losing popular defensive line coach Larry Johnson. To Ohio State -- of all places.

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated reported that "Ohio State is on the cusp of poaching one of Penn State's key assistant coaches, as the Buckeyes are close to finalizing a contract with longtime Nittany Lions' defensive line coach Larry Johnson, a source confirmed to on Monday."

That certainly more than offsets the fact that Penn State's new head coach, James Franklin, is adding a pair of Vanderbilt assistant coaches in offensive coordinator John Donovan and defensive line coach Sean Spencer.

That Johnson, Penn State’s outstanding position coach and prolific recruiter, was leaving Penn State was first reported by  PennLive’s Bob Flounders, who broke the story on Monday night. 

Donovan was Vanderbilt’s offensive coordinator and running backs coach the past three seasons under Franklin, the former Vandy head coach who was hired by Penn State on Saturday. Spencer served as D-line coach the past three years for the Commodores, who were 24-15 during Franklin's reign in 2011-13. Spencer graduated from Clarion in 1995 -- one year before Johnson came to Penn State and established perhaps the most impressive D-line tradition in college football.

Now, it appears Johnson will continue that legacy at one of Penn State's most dreaded Big Ten Conference rivals, Ohio State. Last week, Buckeye defensive line coach Mike Vrabel left Ohio State to coach with former Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien, who is now coach of the NFL's Houston Texans.

Johnson was a favorite of recruits, current players and former Nittany Lions. An excellent recruiter and six-time Washington, D.C., Metro high school coach of the year, he came to Penn State in 1996 and coached under both Joe Paterno and O’Brien. He served as interim head coach after O’Brien resigned Dec. 31 to become head coach of the Texans.

Johnson has been responsible for eight of the Nittany Lions’ past 14 All-Americans – seven defensive linemen and his son, Larry, who played for Penn State and rushed for a school-record 2,087 yards in 2002. His son Tony, a wide receiver, also played for Penn State. Johnson’s players had a direct pipeline to the NFL. Among LJ’s proteges who have played in the pros are Tambi Hali, Jordan Hill, Devon Still, Jared Odrick, Aaron Maybin, Jack Crawford, Anthony Adams, Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes.

Johnson told Flounders: “I want to say that I am very appreciative of all that went into my time at Penn State, all the players I've coached and all of the associations that I have. But I've thought a lot about this, I’ve prayed about it and this is what I want to do. I wish Coach Franklin and Penn State the best, but it’s time for me. It’s a very difficult time but I want to thank the fans, the players, and Penn State. I mean that.”

Donovan’s move to Penn State was confirmed to by sources close to the Vandy coach, while Spencer's move was first reported by and confirmed by a source close to the Penn State program. The departure of Johnson opened the door for Franklin to bring Spencer to Penn State. In addition to Vanderbilt, Spencer has also coached at mid-level and Division II schools like Bowling Green, UMass, Hofstra, Villanova, Holy Cross, Trinity and Shippensburg.

Donovan coached with Franklin at Maryland before the two went to Vanderbilt in 2011. In 2005 and 2008-10, Donovan was the Terrapins’ running back coach. In 2006-07, he was the team’s quarterback coach. In 2001-04, he was an assistant recruiting coordinator with Maryland. In 1998-2000, he was an offensive graduate assistant at Georgia Tech. During that time, O’Brien also was at Georgia Tech, serving as running backs coach (1998-2000), offensive coordinator/QB coach (2001) and assistant head coach (2002). O’Brien and Donovan also coached together at Maryland in 2003-04, when O’Brien was running backs coach.

As offensive coordinator, Donovan will have at his disposal one of the Big Ten’s biggest weapons in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013. Hackenberg had a monster season as a true freshman, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, with only 10 interceptions, and averaging 246 passing yards per game. Hackenberg capped a stellar first season by directing Penn State’s 31-24 upset at Wisconsin, completing 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.

In 2013, he’ll be an even greater focus of the Penn State offense, operating without two-time All-Big Ten wide receiver Allen Robinson, who declared for the NFL Draft earlier this month. The Nittany Lions must also replace starting offensive linemen John Urschel, Ty Howle and Adam Gress, as well as key reserve Garry Gilliam.

Under Donovan, Vandy’s 2013 offense was ranked nationally 92nd in rushing offense, 67th in passing offense, 80th in total offense and 56th in scoring offense. Vanderbilt’s final three regular season games -- all victories -- displayed the strength of its defense and exposed the deficiencies of its offense. The Commodores beat Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest by a combined score of 59-37. (Those three opponents had a combined record of 16-25 in 2013.)

Franklin is also expected to also add these Vanderbilt coaches to his Penn State staff (noted are titles at Vandy): Bob Shoop, defensive coordinator and safeties coach; Dwight Galt, director of performance enhancement; Josh Gattis, offensive recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach; and Charles Bankins, special teams coordinator and tight ends coach.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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