In his early days at LSU, Brick Haley earned a reputation for being a strong closer, winning out on prospects like Sam Montgomery, Ego Ferguson, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore. But slowly his effectiveness waned. Sure, he pulled Travonte Valentine, but LSU pretty routinely finished second in the race for many top defensive line recruits. Some of that can't be prevented. You can't win 'em all, they say. Perhaps it's luck evening out, or perhaps the lack of successful NFL proteges eventually caught up to Brick. If your recruiting trails off and your development isn't exceptionally strong, well, you are probably staring at a new job come next fall. Which is exactly where we find ourselves now.
When LSU hired Ed Orgeron, they hired him to win recruiting battles like this one. Key was always a player on the fringe for LSU, a guy they liked, but couldn't convince. A guy they wanted, but didn't seem to factor for. He took an unofficial visit in November, but didn't really change his stance. The staff stayed persistent, but it was pretty clear that Arden Key would be playing elsewhere, probably within the conference, if it were not for Ed Orgeron. Key himself, and his family, have routinely made it a point to state as much.
It's easy to see why the staff would be quickly enamored with Key. In the Chavis scheme, he's the prototypical defensive end: long, lean, and athletic. That the staff couldn't draw a ton of interest from the talented Georgia prospect likely plays some factor into why we are at where we are today with a new defensive line coach.
As already mentioned above, Key wasn't really on the radar until the hiring of Ed Orgeron. He had committed to South Carolina in June before his Senior season. He decommitted in January, a month before signing day, but many figured he would eventually wind up a Gamecock in the end. Even Key himself still listed them as his top choice. LSU hired Orgeron a week later. Key officially visited LSU that very weekend and he and his family were simply blown away by Orgeron. So much so, that reports began to leak that he may actually be leaning toward committing. Which is exactly what happened a couple weeks later.
Key followed through on that commitment a few days later, by signing his letter of intent. It was our first inclination of what it's like to have a truly elite DL recruiter on staff.
Key ranked as a 4-star in 247's Composite rankings with a .9589 rating. He finished ranked as the 82nd ranked player nationally, and played in the Under Armour All-American Game.
100 - 98 = Five-star prospect. One of the top 30 players in the nation. This player has excellent pro-potential and should emerge as one of the best in the country before the end of his career.
97 - 90 = Four-star prospect. One of the top 300 players in the nation. This prospect will be an impact-player for his college team. He is an All-American candidate who displays pro-potential.
89 - 80 = Three-star prospect. One of the top 10% players in the nation. This player will develop into a reliable starter for his college team and is among the best players in his region of the country.
79 - below = Two-star prospect. This player makes up the bulk of Division I rosters. He may have little pro-potential, but is likely to become a role player for his respective school.
Tale of the Tape
I can't find any sort of "official" testing times for Key. He doesn't seem to have been timed at any verified events. One site lists his 40 at 4.75, but I question that time based on his tape. Regardless, he's one guy I don't think we need to worry about athletically.
Strengths: Speed, Bend, Length, Hand Usage
Weaknesses: Power/Size, Technique
Speed: This much is obvious. Watch 30 seconds of his tape and you'll see him routinely blow by blockers and get into the backfield. Really, most of his clips will suffice, but check out 1:25 and how he easily tracks down the RB. Remember that play where Mingo ran down LaMichael James from Oregon? Key is somewhere around that level.
Bend: What of my favorite skills to look for in a pass rusher is the ability to dip and bend. What I mean by that is the ability to basically "turn the corner." Plenty are talented enough to take a straight line path to the QB for a sack. The best rushers can collapse the pocket and then finish the job by dipping under the blocker and bending around him to get the sack. It takes a combination of power and quickness. It's something most rushers don't have. The play at :13 is a great example. Watch him ride the defender into the back field, then dip under him and bend on a straight line into the QB for the sack. That's a rare and difficult thing to do. Sione Teuhema had a tremendous play last season where he exhibited this skill. The ability to close that gap is often the difference in a sack or, in the very least, a disrupted pass, and a completion. The play at :23 is another fine example of the skill.
Length: Key is well aware of his long arms and he uses them to create separation from blockers. One of the most aggravating things you see from tall players is when they allow blockers to get into their bodies. Key does a pretty solid job of using his length to create space, which is really enabled by...
Hand Usage: Probably more than anything else, my favorite skill of Key's is how he utilizes his hands to beat blockers. A player with his speed can sometimes be guilty of the bull in a China shop rush technique, which consists of simply plowing straight ahead with no purpose, but in a hurry. Key, on the other hand, knows how and when to use his hands to defeat blockers. Just look at the first highlight at :05. A typical speed rusher probably tries to run past this blocker and make the play. Key decides to take the blocker on full bore, but uses his hands and gets up underneath the blocker's shoulder pads to soundly defeat him and complete the play. At :14 we get to see that dip and bend, but also notice how he uses his hands to swat away the blocker and prevent him from getting him engaged (this is also clutch dating advice). Then at 1:14, you see a good example of this in the run game. He shucks the blocker off and makes the tackle.
Power/Size: This will come in time. Right now, he's exceptionally long and lean. He needs to add more mass and strength. You don't see him overpowered much on tape, which is promising itself. But going against bigger and stronger athletes won't help that cause. This is just the natural order of things.
Technique: He's still raw all over. As much as I love his hand usage, he needs to refine everything into a cogent set of pass-rush moves. That's for Orgeron to teach him. He's got the requisite athletic skills to turn into a dominant rusher if he's willing to put in the work.
Miles has routinely compared him to Keke Mingo, since singing day. The resemblance in stature is noteworthy, though Key looks more thickly put together. Mingo was a guy that struggled to add extra weight. Even in his final season, Mingo listed at 240 pounds, but was probably in the 230s. Reportedly, Key is looking to report in the 230 range. I was, and am, a huge Mingo fan, but he was more of a "unique" talent in that he could do a lot of things, some of them surprisingly well.
I see Key as a guy that will grow into more of a classic 4-3 End. Think Jason Pierre-Paul or something. A 6'5", 260 pounder that can move but play with power too. He looks to have some pretty great agility, despite his size, so it will be interesting to see how much of that is retained as he adds good mass.
Based on what I've seen, Key is really something else. The staff has to be hungry to get him into the fold, considering the current lack of standout End play. I suspect he will play right away, even if it's as a situation rusher. Think of Kendell Beckwith's initial role with the team, but a guy a bit more naturally suited to play the part.
When Key chose LSU he said this wasn't a three or four year decision, but a lifetime decision. He said he wants to come here and improve as a player and a person and have a positive impact on the community. He seems like a kid with his head on his shoulders. A lot can change when you get away from home and become BMOC, but those answers showed a maturity most his age don't. Really, the sky is the limit here. The only thing that can stop Arden Key from becoming great is Arden Key.
High End: All-American, future top 10 NFL Draft pick.
Low End: Multi-year starter and quality player, a la Sam Montgomery.
Realistic: I can see Key being a guy that leads the SEC in sacks eventually. Hell, if he plays enough this season, he might rack up a few, considering how pressure-oriented Steele reportedly wants to play. Key is going to be very, very, very good.