The story of Arden Key’s freakish, athletic build didn’t really begin until a stunning growth spurt.
Arden grew four inches in one year, rocketing up as a high school sophomore, the first real step in the formation of the 6-foot-6, 243-pound specimen we see today playing defense for LSU. Sixteen-year-old Arden sprouted from 6-1 to 6-5.
By the time his junior season arrived, Arden had passed up his 6-foot-4 father.
“He started tapping me on the top of my head,” Arden Key Sr. laughed.
The younger Key’s height surge followed in line with the family tradition: grow tall and dominate on the hardwood. The elder Key played point guard and shooting guard in college at Jacksonville State. His siblings, cousins and other family members immersed themselves in the same sport. It was always hoops.
Oh, yes, this football player comes from a basketball family, a family with four sets of twins. Arden is a twin. In fact, Arden’s twin sister, Angel, recently gave birth to twin boys.
A tall basketball family full of twins?
It gets better. Angel was a cheerleader at Martin Luther King Jr. High in Lithonia, Georgia, while Key, for two seasons, was the school’s standout football player.
“Those were the great days,” Arden Key Sr. said.
They weren’t always so good. In jeopardy of not qualifying academically, Arden switched schools for his senior year, landing at a charter program before spending last summer fighting with the NCAA to get cleared. At issue: trivial letters scribbled on a transcript.
It’s all part of the Arden Key story, one that’s expected to continue — in a good way — starting Saturday when No. 6 LSU meets Wisconsin at Lambeau Field.
“Our goal is 20 sacks this season,” the elder Key said. “We’re reaching for the stars.”
What is he?
The 3-4 defense’s primary mission, or at least one of them, is confusing the offense.
Kevin Mawae has seen this work to perfection. He was one of the ones confused.
“It’s all about deception,” said Mawae, a former LSU and NFL offensive lineman who’s currently interning during training camp with the Chicago Bears.
But who does the deceiving? That’s where Key comes in.
He’s referred to as an outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 alignment, but his role is much deeper than that. The hybrid position he occupies is one that blends duties normally carried out by two different players — an outside linebacker and a defensive end. Key’s position is just that — it’s key.
He’s the disguise. He is Aranda’s shadowy tool to confuse the offense at the snap.
Imagine it: The offensive line breaks the huddle and sees Key standing across from the tight end.
Is he an outside linebacker who will drop back in pass coverage? Is he a defensive end who’s gunning for the quarterback? Is he a delayed blitzer who wheels around inside and stuffs the center?
What is he?
“Some teams will honor Key as a down guy, and they will tag him as a down lineman and adjust their blocking schemes,” Mawae said, “but you take one of your pass-dropping linebacker guys out, and now the offense has to determine, ‘Is he a down guy?’
“It becomes a big issue in pass protection,” Mawae continued. “You’ve got to re-designate who the middle linebacker is. It can create confusion. It makes an offense re-evaluate the defense.”
Key has the potential to be a “fourth rusher,” said Pete Jenkins, a longtime college defensive line coach who now serves as a consultant. But he’s also liable to drop and cover your tight end.
“In a 3-4, you have a three-man front, but you have multiplicity in your fourth rusher,” Jenkins said. “It could be an outside backer. It could be an inside backer. We would bring the strong safety up and drop the outside backer — called an exchange.”
In interviews this month, Key declined to reveal how much of the time he slips into coverage. Is it 20 percent, 40 percent, 60 percent?
“I can’t give you a percentage,” he said smiling.
It’s enough, though, for him to snare a few interceptions. He picked off his share of passes in the spring and in preseason camp. It’s enough, too, for him to set goals normally reserved for defensive backs.
“At least two pick-sixes,” he said, listing those season-long objectives. “Five batted balls.”
They called it the 50, Billy Cannon says.
As a freshman last season, Key finished with four sacks, five more quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries. Key led all freshman edge rushers nationally in quarterback pressures with 58, according to numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus, and he started nine games as a 19-year-old.
On the very first play of his career, in fact, Key recorded a sack, dumping Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott for a 9-yard loss.
Football has never been his problem. School has.
Arden Key Sr. and Nicole Spencer agreed in 2014 to move their son from Martin Luther King Jr. High in Lithonia, Georgia, to Hapeville Charter Academy in Atlanta.
A top-rated major college prospect, Key stood on a path toward ineligibility. Hapeville Charter put him back on the right road.
“We put things in place for him to get him academically sound. He was always a smart kid,” said Winston Gordon, football coach at ç, opened in 2009. “His family knew what type of school we were.”
What type of school is that?
Hapeville is a public charter school with an enrollment of about 700. Key is one of several top football prospects who transferred into the school since the inception of its football program in 2013. More than 20 football players have earned college scholarships in the short span.
One of those is Eliah Goodman, a freshman defensive end at Jacksonville State. LSU opens its home schedule with the Gamecocks on Sept. 10.
“Arden said I needed to be there to kill two birds with one stone,” Gordon said. “(Goodman) and Arden were our two defensive ends (in 2014).”
Back to those academics. It took more than a school switch, though, to jostle Key in the classroom.
Gordon suspended Key for a three-game stretch “after he fell short during progress report time,” his father said.
What happened next?
“He pulled his GPA up to almost a 3.0,” Gordon said. “Got a 20 on the ACT, I think.”
Key’s academic issues weren’t over.
He wasn’t allowed to enroll with the other LSU freshmen in June of 2015. The NCAA flagged Key’s transcript from his sophomore year at Martin Luther King.
“A class he had taken, it had some letters beside it and that raised the eyebrows at the NCAA,” Arden Key Sr. said. “We had to give an explanation. We had to go through the board of education to explain the initials next to the letters.”
The explanation: The initials were tied to a funding issue at the school and had nothing to do with Key’s performance in the class.
The NCAA cleared Key in late June, a month too late for him to enroll in summer courses. He missed the entire summer at LSU, working out at home near Atlanta with his father and a personal trainer.
Said Key’s dad: “That was a major setback for him.”
Setting the edge
Key’s new position in Aranda’s defense isn’t all that new to him.
As a child playing for his father, Key played every position aside from defensive back, Arden Key Sr. said. Even as late as high school, Key played in a linebacker role covering tight ends or running backs.
“He’s a freak of nature, 6-6 and can run like a defensive back,” Gordon said. “I moved him around from end to tackle so guys couldn’t scheme against him. I put him in coverage.”
At LSU, you’ll likely see Key drop into coverage just before the snap, only to rush to the line for a blitz. And he’s not only on one side. He moves around, normally stationed on the short side of the field — the side with the shortest distance between the ball and the sideline.
“I get to drop, and when you don’t expect me to rush, then I can rush and get up on you,” he said. “I got a big role. In certain situations I’ll set the edge. In certain situations I’ll come under blockers, and in certain situations I’ll drop back. So I’m really a disguise to the offense. I can come from the left, from the right, drop any time.”
Setting the edge is something Key struggled with at times last year as a 230-pound rookie.
What is “setting the edge”? It’s a football term to describe the job of a defensive end or outside linebacker on a running play. The player must stand his ground and handle the run-block of a tight end or tackle. The goal: Don’t let the running back, or quarterback, bounce to the outside.
Key added more than 10 pounds to his frame over the offseason for the sole purpose of improving that part of his game. He’s now 243 pounds, with the additional weight residing mostly in his lower half, he said.
“I feel fast and stronger. Like, I’m able to set the edge,” he said, as if reporters were doubting him.
Dave Aranda always returned home to California with books.
Arden Key Sr. drives thousands of miles every week from behind the big wheel of a big rig.
He captains a FedEx 18-wheeler, delivering packages throughout the Southeast. He drives as far west as Houston and as south as Tampa, Florida. He’s driven big rigs for two decades, leaving his home in Decatur, Georgia, normally for one-night trips, multiple times per week.
He lives a true life on the road.
“I do,” he said with a laugh, while, of course, on the road, car horns and street noise sometimes drowning out his voice. “I like it as well as I need to do it. It pays the bills.”
Arden Key Sr. introduced football to his son at age 7. Arden Jr. also ran track and played basketball, but he fell in love with the more physical sport, ditching his family’s history with hoops. That was just fine with his father.
“He wanted to go in a different direction,” the older Arden said. “Majority of my side played basketball. Now in my elder years, I felt like I should have chosen football instead of basketball.”
Arden Jr. is a football player with a basketball body. He’s 78 inches tall with a giant wingspan, and he runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.7-second range, his father said.
Asking Key’s LSU teammates about him often produces shakes of the head. His build is baffling to some.
“I was actually talking to some of our young guys who look up to him,” defensive lineman Greg Gilmore said. “I was like, ‘How do you mold yourself to him?’ He’s such a unique individual. He just flies around.”
At a recent practice, Key darted inside, something he wasn’t supposed to do, Gilmore said.
The result: “He made a big play,” Gilmore said.
Key has been making big plays for a long, long time. He racked up a dozen sacks as a sophomore, 100 tackles and eight sacks as a junior and 15½ sacks as a senior. Key began at Hapeville in the middle of his junior year, enrolling at the mid-year and participating in spring practice.
He practiced that spring on a fractured foot. He sustained a Jones fracture during offseason drills before spring practice began. A Jones fracture occurs on the outside of the foot, on the fifth ray on which the pinkie toe belongs.
“He broke his foot, and I didn’t know his foot was broken,” Gordon said. “He still played. He ran and played like it was nothing. He’s walking around with a Jonas fracture.”
Key developed into the fourth-best weakside defensive end in the 2015 class, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. He committed to South Carolina just before his senior season of high school, mostly because of the bond with then-USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, Arden Key Sr. said. He decommitted a month before national signing day and committed to LSU two days before signing day.
Key was one of the first recruits defensive line coach Ed Orgeron visited after taking the job, a few weeks before Key’s commitment.
“As we got closer, LSU came on and they presented exactly what we were looking for in terms of academics and athletics and to go to the next level,” Arden Key Sr. said.
Key studies some of the best at the next level, something Orgeron insists of his defensive linemen. Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Taylor — those are some of Key’s favorites.
They all have similar body types as Key, all fast, rangy defensive ends who flash their versatility. They all keep with a motto Key’s father preached to him since age 7.
“I told him,” Arden Key Sr. said, “ ‘You play this game at one speed. And that’s full.’ ”