BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU football training camp is approaching. SEC Country is counting down the days until camp with a position-by-position preview of how the Tigers stack up this season.
Last week we kicked things off with the offense. This week it’s time to look at Dave Aranda’s defense. Next week? Football will be here.
Heading into the 2017 season, the LSU football team’s edge rush production hinges entirely on one man’s health.
A year ago, Aranda’s Tigers averaged 3 sacks per game, tied for the second-best mark in the SEC while finishing in the top 15 in the nation. The Tigers will have to adjust to losing Lewis Neal and Davon Godchaux on the defensive line, but the most important figure in LSU’s edge rush is returning: Arden Key.
So, what’s up with Arden Key?
The 2017 offseason wasn’t kind to Key. Just a few months after setting the LSU football record for sacks in a single season, Key took a leave of absence from the program in the spring for undisclosed personal reasons. Upon returning to the team, Key had surgery on his shoulder, surgery that almost certainly will sideline him for the beginning of fall camp and potentially the start of the season.
Key has started a running regimen and is rehabbing to get back in shape. But it goes without saying that every second spent without Key on the field has the potential to hurt LSU.
Key’s 12 sacks in 2016 were the most of any returning SEC player this season, and the second most of any returning Power 5 player. The junior is a preseason nominee for the Butkus Award, Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Award, and the Maxwell Award, which are given, respectively, to the best linebacker in college football, the nation’s best defensive player, the nation’s best defensive player, and the best overall player in college football.
If and when Key is healthy, expect him to be the best player on the field just about any time he laces up. Shoulder injury or not, he is the LSU football team’s most talented and most fear-inducing competitor.
What if he can’t go?
Luckily for LSU fans and players, Aranda and coach Ed Orgeron have a contingency plan in place. Redshirt freshmen Andre Anthony and Ray Thornton have spent the spring session learning Key’s position and getting first-team reps against LSU’s best offensive linemen.
Anthony is built like a skinnier Key, measuring 6-foot-5 and 219 pounds. Anthony was a 4-star prospect and an Under Armour All-American in high school. Thornton is a stouter player, measuring 6-3 and 222 pounds. In his last two seasons at Shoemaker High School in Killeen, Texas, Thornton amassed 15 sacks and was district defensive player of the year after a 10-sack senior season. Like Anthony, Thornton was invited to the Under Armour All-America Game.
Obviously, Anthony and Thornton lack experience. Both players redshirts as freshmen in 2016, so they haven’t received any in-game reps. If Key isn’t ready to go for Week 1 versus BYU, it’ll be trial-by-fire for one of these two players, or potentially both.
But based on their athleticism and the reviews they got this spring, expect both to be up to the task.
Who’ll help out?
A third name to watch behind Key is fellow redshirt freshman Sci Martin. Martin suffered an undisclosed injury in March and missed the rest of spring football.
But at 6-4 and 240 pounds, Martin is a talented option off the edge. His size makes him alluring in short-distance and expected-run situations. His speed makes him look prepared to rush the passer. As with Anthony and Thornton, Martin has no game experience as a result of his redshirt in 2016.
The Tigers also could call upon inside linebacker Michael Divinity as an edge rusher. He converted from edge rusher to middle linebacker late last season to help with the Tigers’ lack of depth in the middle. Now that Jacob Phillips, Patrick Queen and Tyler Taylor are enrolled, Divinity may again be an option on the outside.
The new face
If there’s any player who can vault up the LSU football depth chart, it’s incoming freshman K’Lavon Chaisson. One of LSU’s National Signing Day commits, Chaisson was a top-40 national prospect and the second-highest rated prospect in LSU’s Class of 2017.
At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Chaisson is the closest LSU has to Key in body type. (Key arrived at LSU at 6-5, 230 pounds, but has gained weight.) Hype has followed Chaisson from Houston to Baton Rouge. The North Shore High School edge rusher was the No. 4 weak-side defensive end prospect in the nation and the No. 5 player in Texas.
As a senior, Chaisson led all Texas high-schoolers with 15.5 sacks. In case you couldn’t figure this out on your own, there are a lot of high school football players in Texas. A lot. Needless to say, Chaisson was voted to the Class 6A all-state team.