**After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he's had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.
But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we'll talk about some of those issues.**
Part two of this series will involve part of the process to help with what we talked about in part one: Arden Key becoming a dominant pass-rusher.
Last season, it took just nine plays for one of the crown jewels in the Tigers' 2015 recruiting class to make an impact. Defensive end Arden Key scooted around a Mississippi State cut-block attempt and sacked Dak Prescott for a nine-yard loss, which set up a three-and-out possession and punt that led to the offense driving for a 14-point lead.
The 6-6, 231-pound freshman was one of Ed Orgeron's biggest prizes on the trail last season, and it didn't take long for the rest of the ATVS team to get on board his hype train in the preseason:
Overall, he finished the season with 41 tackles, 6.5 tackles or loss, including five sacks (all of which came in conference play -- more sacks than Texas A&M superstar Myles
Jack Garrett had his freshman year, and just one fewer than he had in SEC play last season), plus another nine quarterback hurries. He improved down the stretch as well, leading the team in sacks in November and having is best game in the emotional home finale versus the Aggies with eight tackles and 1.5 sacks. His stat line of just three tackles in the Texas Bowl win doesn't reflect how valuable he was in helping to contain Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes while his teammates notched six sacks.
Five sacks against SEC-caliber offensive linemen isn't anything to sneeze at for a kid fresh out of high school (and one that didn't arrive on campus until right before fall camp, at that), but LSU will need even more out of Key this season, where he will shift from defensive end to the "Buck" outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 defense.
Key will be aligning to the boundary, or the short side of the field, and be one of the centerpieces of Aranda's different pressure packages, in a scheme that will often times be predicated on where the offense aligns its running backs, in order to create mismatches in pass-rush situations.
Thirty front outside linebacker should be a better fit for Key. Ends in a 40-front defense generally have more responsibilities in run defense, where Key could be overpowered at times due to his lack of bulk. As more of a standup rusher, he'll have a little more room to maneuver against the run without having too many responsibilities in coverage. On the boundary side he'll also almost always have a shorter path to the quarterback, and likely won't have extra blockers to deal with against the run, as most teams tend to align their tight end to the field.
He's not LSU's only pass-rusher. Lewis Neal, of course, did lead the Tigers with eight sacks last season, and Davon Godchaux had six from the defensive tackle position. But make no mistake, neither player has Key's potential. Neal is more of an undersized, hustle type. He's hard to deal with, but he can be dealt with through extra attention, plus of those eight sacks, just one came in the final six games of the season. Neal just wore down. Godchaux can be value as a disruptive tackle, but he needs help from the edge against quarterbacks that can move around and navigate their protection.
In short, those two will need Key's help. He has the potential to be the first truly scary edge rusher LSU has had, maybe since Gabe Northern. Sam Montgomery was a great player who got after quarterbacks with strength, technique, hustle and some help from a dominant secondary, but he wasn't a guy that could line up and just blow by a left tackle. Barkevious Mingo had that kind of potential, but struggled with his instincts and could never really sustain bulk.
Key has all of the speed and the athleticism to do what he wants out there, and over the course of last season you could see in his play that the game was slowing down for him. He'd set up tackles with different rush moves and locate the ball better as things happened in front of him. He could stand to add some more weight -- and there were some questions about that in the spring -- but he doesn't have to get up to the 250-pound range right away as an outside linebacker. We talked a lot about opposing tackles holding him, and it was something officials overlooked a lot, but improved technique can help there. If Key is using his hands better to keep blockers from locking on, grabbing jersey will be a lot harder, and more obvious when does happen as well.
And his impact as a speed rusher can help create more opportunities for other disruptive players like Neal, Godchaux or Frank Herron, and even help create better pass-rush opportunities for the other linebackers by shifting protections to the boundary. We already saw a little of that in the Texas Bowl as Kendell Beckwith grabbed 2.5 sacks coming from the other side of Key.
Disruptive linebackers are a staple of the Aranda defense. His 2015 Wisconsin defense had the nation's best Havoc Rate among linebackers, and were among the top 25 in passing-down sack rate. More pressure on the passer means more hurried decisions, more passes up for grabs and hopefully, more turnovers.
The Tigers nearly doubled their sack total from 2014 to 2015 (19 to 34). If Key can double his own individual number from five to 10, it will act as a force multiplier that could push that figure well beyond the 40 mark.