Arden Key is back.
And Will Clapp knows what that means.
“It’s a big upgrade, just because you’re getting a guy that’s 6-6, 260 coming back and one of the best pass rushers LSU has ever seen, and that’s saying something,” said Clapp, LSU’s center. “He’s electric. He’s a big play waiting to happen.”
Key, the junior and All-American edge rusher, is cleared to play in the Tigers’ Southeastern Conference opener Saturday at Mississippi State, coach Ed Orgeron announced Monday, ending a drama-filled offseason for LSU’s most decorated player.
Key missed spring practice to take a leave of absence for what his family called “personal reasons,” and he then underwent shoulder surgery in May for what teammates have described as a rotator cuff issue.
The school’s single-season sack record holder, Key made major strides in his recovery from the shoulder issue last week, participating in full-contact drills at practice while not wearing an injury jersey — a first for both this fall.
The program set the SEC opener as a target date for Key’s return, Orgeron revealed Monday. Jack Marucci, LSU’s head athletic trainer, cleared Key on Monday after he passed several strength tests, the coach said.
“He's going to work hard all week in full contact, and we'll play him as much as we can,” Orgeron said. “We'll see during the week, see how much he can do.”
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Key acknowledged his return with a tweet on Monday, just minutes after Orgeron’s announcement: “Recognize I’m back,” it said.
Key's return is significant for an LSU defense that's already one of the nation's bests. Dave Aranda’s unit has allowed one touchdown through its first two games, and the Tigers lead the nation in rushing yards allowed. Key, a Georgia native who many expect to get selected in the first round of the NFL draft next year, broke the school record with 12 sacks last season as a sophomore.
Key is not completely in game shape yet, Orgeron said. He's at about 265 pounds, and coaches hope to get him down to 255-260, but that could “take a little while to get done,” he said.
Key played at about 230 pounds last season, and he planned to gain about 15-20 pounds during the offseason, he said after LSU’s bowl game. Either way, Key’s return makes an already aggressive pass-rushing unit faster.
Corey Thompson’s mother has seen this man before, the one who wheels around tackles to sack …
The Tigers are likely to use him and fellow outside linebackers Corey Thompson or/and K’Lavon Chaisson in pass-rushing packages. Orgeron suggested such over the summer, saying that coaches had a plan in place for Key and Chaisson — two similar players — to be on the field at the same time. Thompson and Chaisson have a combined 5½ sacks through the first two games of the season.
“Really manipulates a lot of guys on pass rush. So much energy,” quarterback Danny Etling describing Key. “He’s one of those guys always chasing the ball. He just adds another playmaker on that defense and someone else another team has to game plan and worry about.”
Key’s situation has been a cloudy one.
He has not been made available for interviews this fall, and he has his own doctor, Orgeron revealed a few weeks ago. Key's doctor did not clear him ahead of the season opener against BYU, the coach said a week before that game.
No one has publicly commented on Key’s leave of absence this spring, and his family has asked reporters to respect the player’s privacy.
Key has steadily progressed since that shoulder surgery in May. He began running and weight training in early July and participated in noncontact drills for the first two weeks of preseason camp. He donned full pads at camp around Week 3 before making those significant strides last week.
“Every week the strength and the flexibility was getting better and better, closer to our target,” Orgeron said Monday. “And today he's at that target.”
And, now, he’s back.
“He definitely brings a different skill set they’ll have to plan for,” F-back JD Moore said. “He’s not just somebody you can sleep easy at night knowing you’re going to block.”
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