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LSU head coach Ed Orgeron addresses the crowd, Wednesday, February 1, 2017, during the 2017 Bayou Bash on National Signing Day at the Belle of Baton Rouge.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

Dennis Johnson’s name rang out Wednesday in LSU’s football operations center.

Well, not Johnson’s given name. His nickname.

It seems the outside linebackers coach is known among colleagues for having a big appetite.

 

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So as one the Tigers' prized targets revealed an LSU polo shirt under his high school letter jacket — a surefire sign that Johnson had reeled in his man — Ed Orgeron and the rest of the LSU coaching staff, watching from the team's operating room, chanted Johnson's nickname in approval.

“Meatball! Meatball! Meatball! Meatball!” the coaches yelled, over and over, voicing their happiness as they clapped.

Former LSU coach Les Miles, serving a panelist on ESPNU, said Johnson had earned the nickname.

“He’s comfortable around food,” Miles said.

Comfortable around big-time recruits, too. Johnson had just signed K'Lavon Chaisson, a four-star defensive end from Houston.

“Best pass rusher in the country, baby!” Orgeron exclaimed.

Johnson, who was promoted from graduate assistant a little more than four months ago, was one of the heroes of an impressive recruiting haul by a first-year head coach and his staff.

LSU — entering signing day with six mid-year enrollees and 15 players committed to the class — closed the recruiting cycle with the No. 4 weakside defensive end, No. 11 inside linebacker and the No. 11 safety, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.

Targeting eight uncommitted prospects on national signing day, LSU locked up three: Chaisson; four-star inside linebacker Tyler Taylor of Buford, Georgia; and four-star safety Todd Harris of Plaquemine.

“Very proud of our staff, the way we recruited,” Orgeron said. “Short time to get a (top-10) recruiting class for the LSU Tigers. Obviously we lost some guys at the end we're disappointed in, but we feel like we have a great recruiting class, and we went out with a specific need — to get middle linebackers.”

The Tigers finished with 23 signees, ranking No. 7 nationally and third in the Southeastern Conference, according to 247Sports. A 24th commitment — top-ranked junior-college wide receiver Stephen Guidry — announced on Twitter that he had to spend another year at Hinds Community College before enrolling at a school next January.

Because he has open scholarships, Orgeron said the Tigers may make a late addition to class within the next two weeks, but he wouldn’t mind leaving space open for the 2018 recruiting class.

The Tigers failed to sign only two of the 20 players committed to LSU before Miles’ firing in late September, one of which was Guidry. Orgeron’s time as LSU recruiting coordinator, as well as weekly communication with prospects while he was the interim coach, made a difference in maintaining a top-10 class.

“First of all, it's the power of LSU,” Orgeron said. “But our whole objective when I became interim head coach was to win enough games to get the job. We were recruiting but we didn't really start recruiting until I became full time coach. We are excited with our recruiting staff, within the department, our football staff — the way we pulled together to get most of the good players in the country."

Still, Orgeron and Co. came up short on a handful of key targets that were still available on national signing day, including the highest-rated uncommitted prospect on the board.

Taylor and Harris’ announcements began a promising morning for the Tigers. Taylor became the third linebacker to sign with LSU, joining Livonia four-star outside linebacker Patrick Queen and top-ranked inside linebacker Jacob Phillips.

Phillips flipped from Oklahoma to LSU last week, representing Orgeron’s first big recruiting splash since his interim tag was removed.

“Going into this season we had more kickers on scholarship than middle linebackers,” Orgeron said at the Bayou Bash at the Belle of Baton Rouge. “When Dave told me that, I said, 'We’ve got to get that fixed.’ "

The Tigers then secured Harris’ signature, keeping the No. 3 player from Louisiana from heading out of state. It gave LSU four of the top 25 defensive backs in the country, including three safeties.

However, disappointment began to set in for LSU when Starkville, Mississippi, outside linebacker Willie Gay elected to stay home. Gay, a four-star prospect, picked Mississippi State over LSU and Michigan, an expected move to many recruiting insiders. But Gay said he actually gave a silent commitment to the Tigers before a change of heart Saturday night.

"I talked to Coach O last night; I texted him," Gay told the The Clarion-Ledger. "He called me, and I didn't get the call. So I texted him, 'Coach, I got bad news.' I just told him what was up, and he was cool with it. I told Michigan also."

Cordele, Georgia, four-star defensive end Markaviest Bryant then surprised many by signing with Auburn over LSU and Georgia. Bryant, nicknamed “Big Cat,” was believed to be leaning toward LSU before Wednesday.

But the Tigers rebounded in a large way, stealing Chaisson from the grasp of heavily favorited Texas. Considered a five-star prospect by Scout.com and 247Sports, 6-foot-4, 220 pounder's skill set is similar to Arden Key.

LSU’s recruitment of Chaisson, whose first offer came from the Tigers at a camp in 2015, came down to the very end. Orgeron and staff members made an in-home visit in the early morning of Jan. 27 before Chaisson headed to the airport for a trip to Florida, his last official visit.

“Outstanding pass rusher,” Orgeron said. “He was long and lean, and I think that was beneficial for us to get him to camp early. We were the first to offer him, and I think that's one of the last things I had in the conversation with him before he went to the airport.”

The Tigers then swung and missed on its final three targets: four-star wide receivers Devonta Smith and Nico Collins and five-star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson. Smith — the No. 9 overall wideout from Amite — became the fifth player from Louisiana to sign with Alabama, which earned the 247Sports’ No. 1 ranking for the seventh straight year.

Wilson, the No. 6 overall player in the class, was thought to be favoring LSU, but he hardly gave any indication of where he was leaning. The 6-foot-4, 329-pound prospect acknowledged his brother “loved” LSU, but Wilson bought Jimbo Fisher’s pitch at Florida State.

“We missed on a couple of big guys, but that’s OK,” Orgeron said. “The guys we have are the guys we’re going to win with.”