AUBURN, Ala. — Heading into Week 3, Auburn starting left guard Alex Kozan said Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett looked like he “was created in a video game to rush the passer.”
One week later, Kozan and the rest of Auburn’s offensive line will go up against another defensive end that could’ve emerged out of the same virtual lab that produced Garrett — LSU’s Arden Key.
“(Key is) built to rush the passer, and he does that very well,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Wednesday night.
The terminology Auburn coaches have used in describing Key is quite similar to what the Tigers said about Garrett a few days earlier. The two defensive ends have commanded the utmost respect for their pass-rushing skills and production so far in their college careers.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn now on the SEC teleconference. It took him about 5 seconds to mention #LSU DE Arden Key.
— Scott Rabalais (@RabalaisAdv) September 21, 2016
So if the 262-pound Texas A&M junior was Kozan’s prototype for the ideal pass-rusher, consider the 238-pound LSU sophomore a newer, sleeker model.
“There’s some similarities in terms of their quickness and first step,” Lashlee said. “(Key’s) length is what stands out. He’s a really long, wiry player … He might not be as thick as some of the other D-ends in our league, but he’s really good at getting off blocks.
“So even if he gets out of position, say when you’re running the ball, he can recover and get off the block. He doesn’t stay blocked long, and that’s a good characteristic of a good defensive player.”
The younger Key is even playing at a higher level than Garrett as he heads into a crucial Week 4 matchup against Auburn.
Key has 5 sacks through the first three weeks of the season, which ranks first among players from Power 5 conferences and tied for second among all FBS defenders.
“He’s very gifted,” said Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who coached Key last year at LSU. “And he’s very serious about the game and he practices that way and enjoys it. He’s a very, very talented young man.”
The 6-foot-6 sophomore from Atlanta had a pair of sacks against both Wisconsin and Mississippi State. His second sack against Mississippi State ended any hopes of a Bulldog comeback victory against LSU.
— Jasmine (@JasmineLWatkins) September 18, 2016
“He seems to be a kid who plays hard and has a knack for when they need a play on like a critical third down or what night, he seems to be the guy who comes through and makes the plays for them,” Lashlee said. “They’ve got a lot of good players, but we’ve got to know where he is at all times.”
In first-year LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense, Key could be anywhere on the field when he faces Auburn on Saturday evening.
Aranda rose to fame at Wisconsin for his wide range of schemes to rush the passer. While he primarily ran a 3-4 defense with the Badgers, he had packages with two down linemen and or none at all.
The arrival of the “Mad Scientist” at LSU prompted Key, who played a traditional defensive end position under Steele, to be the front-runner at a stand-up outside linebacker spot.
But Aranda and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron have given Key opportunities early in the 2016 campaign to rush the passer out of a 3-point stance — much like he was used to in 2015, when he emerged as a true freshman starter.
“We like him (playing in the 3-point stance),” LSU head coach Les Miles said earlier this week. “We’re encouraged that he enjoyed it. It’s one of the things that you recruited him for, so we’ll look forward to giving him that opportunity. I think if you went back and saw the number of places that he rushed from, I think you could see that there’s an opportunity there for him to really show his skill.”
Key’s versatility has put Auburn’s offense on an even higher alert heading into the LSU matchup. The Tigers allowed 2 sacks to Garrett — including one on the first snap of the game — and 13 total tackles for loss to the Aggies. That amount added to Auburn’s FBS-high 32 tackles for loss allowed in 2016.
“He is a factor. You have to know where he is,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “When he knows it is pass, he is a factor. He was a factor last year against us as a true freshman. We definitely have to be aware of him … it is part of staying out of the negative plays.”
Malzahn admitted that Auburn didn’t adjust quickly enough to how Texas A&M was using Garrett at defensive end in the 29-16 loss.
This week, the offensive coaching staff’s emphasis has been on putting Auburn’s struggling offense in better situations against game-changing edge-rushers such as Key.
According to Lashlee, there’s a way to give Key his proper attention as a playmaker to avoid without being too conservative. Finding that balance could be the difference-maker for the Auburn offense.
“They’ve just got to continue to improve, and we’ve just got to continue to try to protect them in the situations we need to,” Lashlee said. “But you’ve still got to go play and win the game. You can’t play scared. You can’t play not aggressive. But you also can’t play stupid, so you’ve got to find that fine line.”