BATON ROUGE, La. — Arden Key has a tell.
If the sophomore defensive end plays cards like he rushes the passer, chances are he’s a lousy poker player. But football isn’t poker. And Key sure isn’t a lousy pass-rusher.
With LSU’s transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 unit under new coordinator Dave Aranda came a position change for Key, who notched 5 sacks on his way to an SEC All-Freshman Team nod in 2015. Under former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Key played almost exclusively with his hand in the dirt. His prime directive was to get after the quarterback and give the opposing offensive line fits. But in Aranda’s scheme, Key is more of a flex linebacker, often starting a play upright now and much more frequently dropping back in coverage.
Or rather, that was the plan.
In practices earlier in the season, Key found a loophole. On plays where he was 100 percent certain he would be rushing the passer, he began to nestle back into his old three-point stance. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron noticed this and responded by giving Key and the rest of LSU’s edge rushers license to do this on those specific occasions.
“We found out it was a change that Wisconsin game,” Key said. “Some of the plays that I know I’m going to be able to rush, I can get a three-point stance. But some plays where I know I might have to drop, then I’m going to get in my two-point stance. But in my two-point stance, I still might be rushing. At the same time, I might be dropping. It’s up to the formation.”
So that’s the book on Key, at least for right now. If his hand is on the ground, he’s coming after your quarterback. And by Key’s estimation, that happened on approximately 90 percent of snaps last week against Mississippi State. But the other 10 percent of the time, prepare for anything.
Teams may know what’s coming, but they haven’t been able to stop it. Key already has tied his 2015 total with 5 sacks in LSU’s first three games, tied for second-best in the nation and leading the SEC. Unsurprisingly, both of Key’s sacks in his breakout performance against Mississippi State came with him bursting out of his three-point stance. He also ranks tied for second in the SEC in tackles-for-loss with 5.5.
That said, Key says he thinks at least half of his sacks this season have come on plays he started in a two-point stance. And to senior defensive end Lewis Neal, the success of LSU’s defense this season hinges on that kind of versatility, not just from Key but from the entire front seven.
“Playing both schemes brings value to all of us because we’re playing every technique there is,” Neal said. “It’s really bringing value to all of us. Look at me: I’m an end really, but I’m playing (defensive tackle) and making plays. Doing those things is just showing versatility. It’s better for all of us.”
Neal and Key gave different answers when both were asked whether the team uses the 3-4 or the 4-3 more. Key said he can barely remember the team using the 3-4 at all against Mississippi State, while Neal says the Tigers alternated between the two pretty evenly.
To further add to the confusion, LSU coach Les Miles said Monday that in “all situations” his team uses a 3-4 base defense, but switches to the 4-3 when there is a certain personnel group he wants to put in the game.
Regardless of what scheme the Tigers rely on this Saturday at Auburn (6 p.m. ET, ESPN) , their plans likely will be similar to what they did against Mississippi State. Neal said he expects Auburn to run a similar offense to what Mississippi State did, with emphasis on reading the actions of the defensive linemen and a lot of option football.
And in passing situations, you can bet Key will have his hand in the dirt. Because, according to Neal, why wouldn’t he?
“You get off better with your hand in the dirt regardless,” Neal said. “In track, they’re in the blocks, right? You get off better that way regardless. It’s just natural.”