WEST MONROE — The former Tigers defensive lineman people around the LSU facilities still call "Meatball" walked into the restaurant, fresh off the recruiting trail.
Dennis Johnson covers most of north Louisiana for the LSU coaching staff during the recruiting season, and between the country-road drives and phone calls, the assistant coach stopped in for the LSU Coaches Caravan at Walk-On's in West Monroe.
It's been a long journey for the 30-year-old Johnson, a Mississippi native who started his LSU career as a walk-on junior-college transfer who developed into a dependable defensive lineman and is fresh off his first season coaching defensive line for the Tigers.
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Johnson went from graduate assistant under former coach Les Miles to full-time outside linebackers coach for Ed Orgeron. Then, after longtime defensive line coach Pete Jenkins retired after the 2017 season, Johnson was given a two-year, $210,000-per-year contract to replace Jenkins.
And after his first season, "Meatball" — a nickname given to Johnson for his short and round figure in college — is still collaborating with one of football's most respected defensive line tutors in Orgeron.
The 2018 season included highs and lows for the Tiger defensive line.
In a hallmark 36-16 victory over then-No. 2 Georgia, the line shut down a potent Bulldogs rushing offense after shifting its alignment against the Georgia offensive line. Starting defensive end Rashard Lawrence was named the Fiesta Bowl's defensive MVP after recording four tackles for loss and two sacks in LSU's 40-32 win over Central Florida.
But no defensive lineman had more than four sacks (LSU ranked 32nd nationally with 34 total), and the entire position group also was called out by Orgeron following a 29-0 loss to Alabama, in which LSU was outgained 576-196 in offensive yards. Orgeron said then that "we've got to recruit better defensive linemen. I got to get defensive linemen like them."
For next season, LSU has a unique blend of veterans and incoming talent that it hasn't had in recent years. Lawrence and starting nose tackle/defensive end Breiden Fehoko both opted to return for their senior seasons, and early enrollee nose tackle Siaki "Apu" Ika has already made a push to start as a true freshman after impressing the coaching staff during spring football.
Johnson said he's "always learning" in an interview with The Advocate on Tuesday, fresh off his first season coaching defensive line at LSU.
The LSU football team's Academic Progress Rate score has taken a slight dip.
Going into the summer, what are the main goals leading into the season?
So defensively, this is the first time that we've had such a veteran group up front, which is awesome to have. So what you want to develop is, you want to take a sense of pride and ownership with the group and the players. We started to develop that toward the back end of the season and through the spring. Obviously, we had some injuries and stuff down spring. But having the whole group, full, healthy unit going into camp, we expect everybody will be hitting on all cylinders, you know? Some rotation. Some depth. So, that’s the kind of things you want to get going in the spring. Everybody knowing what they’ve got to do. Everybody being on the same page. Everybody working toward the same goal.
No one who has followed the team is unfamiliar with what Ed Orgeron has said about how y'all want to be strong up front. What are the keys to that, to make your unit as elite as possible?
All the work that we put in... We have some talented individuals up front, obviously. We have some young guys coming in, but you've got old guys like (returning starting defensive end) Rashard Lawrence, G-Lo (returning starting defensive end Glen Logan), (returning starting nose tackle and defensive end) Breiden (Fehoko). We’ve got guys that are going to step up like (junior defensive end) Neil (Farrell) and (junior defensive end) Justin (Thomas) and (sophomore nose tackle) Tyler (Shelvin). We’ve got young guys like (early enrollee nose tackle Siaki) "Apu" (Ika), (incoming freshman defensive tackle) Joseph Evans. I mean, you've got guys. Now, with the work we put on the field and off the field, that extra that they do on their own, all that type of stuff, it takes you to that next elite level. That's what this time of year is for primarily.
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How is Rashard Lawrence preparing? Obviously he missed the spring (with offseason knee surgery). What can he work on right now?
You know, he’s working on all his pass rush moves. He’s working on a lot of stuff. His hip explosions. Talked to him just the other day. He’s been working all type of individual drills that he’s gotten. He's going at it. He feels good about the position he’s in right now.
How is he on his knee?
He's been doing fine. He's been doing fine. Still working. But he's going to be OK.
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At nose tackle, Apu seems to be getting a lot of talk. Between him and Tyler Shelvin, where are they at and what can they work on?
That's what competition does: It brings out the best in everybody. Even with Apu coming in as a youngster, playing well, dominating some practices, it allowed Tyler to step up his game, which allowed Apu to step up his game. It's awesome to see them go back and forth every practice. We're going to be strong at that position. Two really good players. So I expect them to continue that competition all the way to fall camp.
Have you seen a guy like Apu shed that much weight that quick? It looks like he means business. (Ika came into the program at 372 pounds, then exceeded expectations in workouts by getting down to 347).
He came in and he was focused. Great kid. Comes from a great background. He wants to work. And when you have that type of mentality, that's what happens.
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Pass rush wise, you added an analyst from Southern Cal (former All-American defensive end Kenechi Udeze). What kind of things have y'all found recently that can improve that?
We're always doing research and development. Just the other day, the D-line coach from the Saints (Ryan Nielsen) was in. There's always stuff that we're doing to find out the latest and most innovative stuff in pass rush, because the game's always evolving. It's always changing. So to stay ahead of that, we have to have information. And our guys, they love new stuff. They love new drills. They love a new approach. It keeps them in it, it keeps them excited, and that's the type of things we do.
As a coach yourself, what did you learn last year in your transition (from coaching outside linebackers to defensive line)?
I'm always learning. Especially being under Coach O. Him being a defensive line guy. And just the every day attack of every day that you have to have. You have to hit it running. I mean, even in the spring, when we had our line Appreciation Hour meetings. I’ve learned so much between him, offensive coaches, analysts and stuff. And so, we’re always building that knowledge.
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What do you think this defensive line can be in comparison to last year?
We can be more dominant and more effective in the pass rush and doing things like that. More depth, which is going to help a lot. Those things will help us improve up front.
Who's a guy that maybe doesn't get his name out there as much that you see has been putting in work?
I mean, obviously like Rashard, Breiden... Glen Logan's had a great spring. Very proud of him. Neil was out, but he's known to have production. Those two guys, you probably haven't hear them as much, but we expect a lot from them.
Former LSU tight end Foster Moreau has signed his rookie contract to start his NFL career.
Breiden's an interesting player. He's shifted from defensive end to nose tackle and back...
He's a smart player. He can be used where as needed. Obviously right now he's playing defensive end for us, which is good. But in all type of situations, even move from end to nose, that's just because he has a great football IQ and he's an athletic individual.
You've got the trail ahead of you for recruiting. How busy are you?
I mean, it's pretty busy right now. But it's always fun going out finding great players.
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