BATON ROUGE, La. — One does not replace a consensus top-10 player in college football. Yet that possibility looms for LSU, even if only for a game or two, as the Tigers wait for hybrid end/outside linebacker Arden Key to recover from offseason shoulder surgery.
Key is so dynamic that it’s not possible to replace him with one player alone. The Tigers have a trio working to get themselves in position to do so this August: redshirt freshmen Andre Anthony and Ray Thornton and touted true freshman K’Lavon Chaisson. Another player at the position, Sci Martin, is recovering from a knee injury sustained in the spring.
At this point, Thornton is the most versatile player in the group. He spent his redshirt year at the F-linebacker position that was primarily played by Tashawn Bower last season. He started working out at the buck position this spring when Key was away from the program.
“Me being versatile, it’s good to be able to play different positions,” Thornton said. “I’m prepared to move wherever they need me to play.”
While Key is out, that likely means the buck. When Key returns, it could mean Thornton flips to the other side of the line in a spot where senior Corey Thompson is projected to start.
Last year, the Tigers branded themselves as a 3-4 base defense, but spent much of the time with five defensive backs on the field due in part to matchups and Dwayne Thomas’ versatility at nickel back. The F-linebacker was typically the player squeezed off the field in that case. When he was on the field, the F-linebacker usually stayed back in coverage while the buck rushed the passer.
“One of the things we are really focusing on is not, ‘OK, one guy is dropping and one guy is rushing.’ They’re looking to make both sides kind of equal,” Thornton said. “Of course, one side will be dropping more than the other. But as a defense we’re looking at it as, ‘OK, this guy may be hurt’ or whatever the situation may be.
“Sometimes we may have plays where you don’t have time to run across the field and switch. You just have to know what you have to do and be like, ‘OK, I’m B now and he’s F.’ Learning both sides of the field will really put us ahead in a lot of aspects.”
Waiting for his chance
Though he did not play last season, Thornton had the benefit of practicing with the team. Anthony was not so fortunate.
The NCAA ruled the New Orleans native ineligible last season. His original high school shut down, and an issue with transcripts from his freshman year caused college football’s governing body to red-flag Anthony.
Now he is with the team and ready to roll.
“It was a lonely time,” Anthony said of 2016. “I lifted weights on my own, pushed myself on my own to get better every day. I knew my time was coming up to get back on the field again. I knew I had to be ready.”
Unlike Thornton, he has one job to focus on: rushing the passer from the buck position. But Thornton and Anthony are helping each other get better.
“I feel (Andre’s) a better natural pass rusher than I am,” Thornton said. “So I do learn from him. I have troubles pass rushing sometimes and he has some trouble during the run. So we kind of feed off each other and make each other a better player.
“We don’t focus on getting that spot, but as two people trying to contribute to winning a national championship and coming out doing our thing.”
When it comes to LSU freshmen, most of the attention is focused on quarterbacks Myles Brennan and Lowell Narcisse. But it could be Chaisson who makes the most noticeable impact early in his career.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound edge rusher from Houston is getting his teammates’ attention.
“Chaisson has a lot of raw, natural talent. It excites me when I see him,” Thornton said. “It reminds me of myself when I was in high school. Just seeing him, guys get hype off of what he does. Seeing him perform and eager to learn — something about it makes me excited.”
Thornton figures there is only one thing he has to offer Chaisson — knowledge.
“I’m the type of guy who likes to learn the whole defense so I know if I miss what it affects,” Thornton said.
Even in the first week of camp, he figures Chaisson may be tired of listening to him. But that’s not going to stop Thornton from doling out the wisdom.
“Sometimes he might be like, ‘Man, this guy is telling me a lot,’” Thornton said. “But I’m trying to make him great, just like I’m trying to be.”