COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s rivalry with Penn State is about to burn hotter than ever.
And if OSU coach Urban Meyer and old Big Ten nemesis Bret Bielema ever meet again? That feud just got a lot more interesting, too.
Ohio State completed its coaching staff Tuesday with two headline hires, adding longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Sr., and Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash, according to a report by Sports Illustrated.
Neither Johnson and Ash nor Ohio State confirmed the moves, but Sports Illustrated said the deals will be announced later this week. Johnson, 61, regarded as one of the nation’s top recruiters, will coach the Buckeyes’ defensive front while Ash will serve as co-coordinator and secondary coach.
Ash will work with incumbent coordinator Luke Fickell, though it remains unclear who will run the defense. While Fickell called the shots in a co-coordinator arrangement with the since-departed Everett Withers last year, Ash was a coordinator under Bielema at Wisconsin and Arkansas.
Ash was also Arkansas’ highest-paid assistant with a contract worth $550,000 per year through 2015. Fickell made $610,000 last season.
In any case, both hires represent potential coups.
Ash, a 1996 graduate of Drake, will be charged with remaking OSU’s wobbling pass defense, which ranked 112th nationally in allowing 268 passing yards per game last season. In 2010, he filmed a DVD titled, “Aggressive 4-3 Defense: Shutting Down the Passing Game,” and his units mostly followed through.
At Wisconsin, where he spent three years as a coordinator, the Badgers were 15th nationally in total defense in both 2011 and 2012 and fourth and 18th, respectively, in pass defense. Arkansas was 76th in total defense and 73rd in pass defense in Bielema’s 3-9 debut season.
“Very happy for former coaches that decide to move to new challenges,” Bielema wrote on Twitter. “The respect our staff gets nationally will continue to grow.”
Johnson’s arrival, meanwhile, turned heads nationally. Days after new Penn State coach James Franklin vowed to “dominate the region” in recruiting, Meyer raided his best salesman.
Johnson, who spent the past 18 seasons as a Penn State assistant, was reportedly offered a position by Franklin. But he declined in favor of OSU, where he fills the void left by defensive line coach Mike Vrabel’s recent departure for an assistant position with the NFL’s Houston Texans.
He coached six first-round NFL draft picks at Penn State — including Jared Odrick, Jimmy Kennedy, Tamba Hali, and Courtney Brown — and became known as a force inside living rooms, earning recognition from Rivals.com as the national recruiter of the year in 2006. Johnson made particular inroads into Washington D.C., and Maryland, where he was a high school coach before joining the late Joe Paterno's staff in 1996.
On a staff that previously counted nine Ohio natives, Rivals recruiting analyst Marc Givler called Johnson’s East Coast ties “huge in the long term.”
The move could influence four-star defensive lineman Thomas Holley of Brooklyn, N.Y. — the centerpiece of Penn State’s 2014 recruiting class. Holley, Rivals’ No. 3 defensive tackle, chose PSU over Ohio State and Alabama, among others.
“If Ohio State chooses to repursue Thomas Holley,” Givler said, “I think there is an excellent chance of him flipping.”