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Twenty sacks or not, Arden Key will be a weapon for LSU's defense

BATON ROUGE, La. – The response seemed so outrageous that a reporter stopped Arden Key in the middle of an interview session last week to make sure he heard it correctly.

“I just want to make sure I heard right what you said about your goals for sacks: Was that for a single season?” he asked.

“Twenty, yeah,” Key replied. “For a single season.”

Wait, there’s more.

“I want 20 sacks, at least two pick-sixes, like five batted balls,” the LSU sophomore outside linebacker said. “I want to do pretty good this year.”

That would certainly qualify as pretty good. In fact, it would rank among the best showings by a defensive player in SEC history. And that’s exactly the kind of production Key expects from himself before he completes his college career.

“Well, 12 [sacks] is the record here,” Key said, referring to Oliver Lawrence's record sack total in 1989, “and then within college football, I want to be ahead of everybody. I want to be the best pass-rusher to ever come out of college football.”

A typical response would be to laugh at such a seemingly unreasonable goal. But to borrow Richard Ben Cramer’s opening sentiment from a famous 1986 Esquire profile on baseball legend Ted Williams – “Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those” – Key clearly does not find typical to be acceptable.

That’s why Key’s teammates won’t write off the possibility of him reaching that lofty goal.

“If he says he’s going to get 20 sacks, he’s going to get 20 sacks,” LSU nose guard Greg Gilmore said. “When he puts his mind to something, he’s going to do it. We’ve got a lot of things in place to get him open.”

Still, let’s take a moment to put Key’s goal in perspective.

If he were to notch 20 sacks by himself, Key would surpass the season total of 27 FBS teams from 2015, two of which (Auburn and Kentucky) hailed from the SEC. Two more SEC teams (South Carolina and Arkansas) had exactly 20 sacks last season.

Individually, Alabama legend Derrick Thomas – perhaps the best pass-rusher to ever strap on a pair of shoulder pads – holds the unofficial NCAA and SEC sack record with 27 in 1988, long before the NCAA recognized sacks as a statistic in 2000. The official NCAA record belongs to another legendary sack artist, Arizona State’s Terrell Suggs, who logged 24 in 2002.

Over the last 10 seasons, no SEC player has recorded more than 15 sacks (Mississippi State’s Willie Evans in 2005), and the conference’s single-season leaders in that time included five first-round NFL draft picks. We’re talking names like Missouri’s Shane Ray, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, Auburn’s Dee Ford and Nick Fairley and Arkansas’ Jamaal Anderson here, and not even including a former No. 1 overall selection, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, who never led the league in sacks.

None of those superstars came especially close to 20 sacks in a season, and yet nobody would deny that they were dominant difference-makers on defense. That’s what LSU hopes Key can become after earning freshman All-America honors last season with five sacks and a team-high nine quarterback hurries.

As Gilmore mentioned, new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has designed a number of pass-rush looks specifically to get speed rushers like Key and defensive end Lewis Neal into the backfield. The 6-foot-6 Key is athletic enough to drop into coverage on zone blitzes, and that could create another strategic advantage in Aranda’s scheme since opponents will not always know when Key intends to chase down the quarterback.

“With coach Aranda, he’s so smart, he puts me in situations where I’m going one-on-one,” Key said. “And I know teams are going to try to chip me this year, and it’s going to be hard to chip me when you don’t know when I’m coming or where I’m coming from.”

Will that be enough to help Key reach his goal? History is not on his side, and yet any noticeable bump in his production would be a welcome addition. Key does not have to make league history in order to impact games the way his coaches and teammates expect.

“He will make a lot of tackles. I think he will have a very successful year, not necessarily having 20 tackles for loss or 20 sacks,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “But should he have 20 sacks, I would be the first one celebrating that number.”

If he gets anywhere near that number, rest assured that Miles is not the only person wearing purple and gold who will be celebrating.