Arden Key and his teammates still joke about Kevin Steele.
In meetings, they say things he might say — using his country twang.
“Whyyyyyy guys!?” one player will yell, impersonating LSU's former defensive coordinator.
Then they will begin to laugh.
“That’s Coach Steele!” they’ll all scream in unison.
“Coach Steele is gone, but he’s still here,” Key said. “We all love Coach Steele. No hard feelings.”
No. 17 LSU and its rejuvenated offense, led by new quarterback Danny Etling, travel to Auburn on Saturday for a 5 p.m. meeting with a familiar face. Steele is Auburn's defensive coordinator, having left Baton Rouge last season after one year — a move that caught even head coach Les Miles off guard.
LSU and Auburn swapped assistants last season, in a way, and both moves were surprising departures for similar positions. Wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig, a former Auburn quarterback, joined LSU in February after spending the previous three seasons at his alma mater.
These are intriguing storylines for a game that doesn't need any more. The matchup involves desperate teams strapped with a combined three losses through three weeks and head coaches who grace hot-seat lists.
The past two meetings were routs. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall raced past visiting LSU in a 41-7 win in 2014, and running back Leonard Fournette pummeled visiting Auburn in a 45-21 victory last season.
You don’t have to remind LSU players about the former game.
“It’s all around,” Key said during interviews Monday, pointing to signage hung on the walls of LSU’s indoor practice facility.
Pieces of white paper were taped on the walls, each emblazoned with four characters in black, bold font: 41-7.
“That’s something we don’t want to let happen again,” receiver Travin Dural said. “We know that team is going to come out and play with a lot of passion because of the game last year.”
Danny Etling might have solidified his place as LSU’s starting quarterback in Saturday's 23-…
Last year, Steele was wearing purple and gold.
His departure hasn’t necessarily hung over the program. Miles subsequently made what many national experts believe was the best coaching hire of the offseason, plucking Dave Aranda from Wisconsin to replace Steele. Also, the Tigers' 2015 defense finished 25th nationally, LSU's worst mark since 2009.
Still, the way he left surprised many. He informed Miles a couple of hours after LSU’s win over Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl in December. The two talked in the lobby of the team’s hotel in downtown Houston that night.
“I walked through what was a common area, and Kevin called me over and said, ‘I need to visit with you,’ ” Miles said. “And he said, ‘I'm going to Auburn.’ And I said, ‘Huh?’ So I was relatively shocked. I understood, and I really wish him well.”
Auburn offered Steele a longer contract (through 2018) and a raise ($600,000 more through the life of the deal). Alabama’s state retirement played a role in the 58-year-old’s departure, too.
The next night, Miles watched Aranda’s Wisconsin defense hold Southern California to 21 points in the Holiday Bowl. He called Aranda’s agent “as soon as I could have possibly arranged it” and offered him the job.
“I watched Wisconsin beat USC and knew that that was (the guy),” Miles said. “I knew I was going to call Dave Aranda. He was the next guy. In reality, he was probably one of the finest interviews I had (the year before).”
Steele is a longtime coaching veteran. Playing his old team isn't a bother.
"Well, I've got a couple more times of experience of it than most," he told reporters in Alabama on Sunday. "I've done it before. And quite frankly, it really has very little effect on it."
Welcome to Film Room, our weekly analysis of LSU’s last football game. Have a seat. No talki…
Key and some other LSU players learned of Steele’s departure “a couple” of days after the coordinator told Miles.
“I was kind of sad, mad, bittersweet,” Key said. “Then we found out the reason for it. It was a business thing. We can’t be mad about that.”
For LSU’s offensive players, Saturday’s game will bring a matchup against a defensive style they saw all last year. Etling, the Tigers’ new starting quarterback, practiced against it while on the scout team last fall, and offensive linemen like Will Clapp saw it during preseason camp and spring practice.
It’s a multiple defense with characteristics of the 3-4 and the 4-3.
“Each D-coordinator adapts his defense to what the team he’s at is used to and their strengths,” Clapp said. “We’ll see some similar stuff, but there’s always going to be new wrinkles.”
Tight end DeSean Smith had different thoughts.
“We know what they’re going to come at us with,” he said. “We know his type of coaching style. ... We’re looking forward to beating them.”
Steele still keeps in contact with some members of LSU’s staff, including defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. The two talk often enough for Key to reveal that nugget to reporters Monday.
LSU’s new coordinator isn’t as country as Steele, a South Carolina native who played at Tennessee. You won’t find Aranda walking around with a jaw full of dipping tobacco, at least.
“Coach Aranda don’t dip, and Coach Steele used to dip — and we used to ask him for a little dip,” Key said, smiling. “We asked him, but he never gave us any.”