BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU defensive end Arden Key doesn’t necessarily do himself any favors with his unfiltered expressions of self-confidence.
The eyebrow-raising sack total the 6-foot-6, 240-pound sophomore has boldly projected for himself provides opposing offensive linemen, blocking tight ends and chipping running backs no shortage of motivation to slam shut every opening Key could possibly find to the quarterback.
Yet with five sacks through three games, Key is on pace to reach his stated goal of 20 sacks — which would shatter LSU’s single-season record by eight.
That’s gotten the attention of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, whose team will host Key and 18th-ranked LSU this Saturday.
“You have to know where he is,” Malzahn said. “When he knows it is pass, he is a factor.”
Key is an edge pass-rusher in the mold of former LSU star defensive end Barkevious Mingo, who was tall, relatively slender and fast. Key even wears the same No. 49 Mingo did, but could wind up with more impressive numbers. Mingo maxed out at eight sacks in a season and finished with 17 in his three-year college career before turning pro after his junior season.
Key had five sacks as a true freshman last season, meaning the 20-year-old now has double-digit career sacks just three games into his sophomore campaign. His most recent sack — in which he also stripped Mississippi State quarterback Damian Williams — resulted in a late-game turnover that sealed LSU’s 23-20 victory over the Bulldogs last weekend.
“He’s a blur to block. He gives you edge pressure immediately, and he’ll have the penchant for making big plays,” LSU head coach Les Miles said. “If he keeps working hard and does the right things, he’ll have a great year.”
Malzahn said he ranks Key alongside Myles Garrett of Texas A&M as “two of the best (pass rushers) in the country.
“Their skill sets and their explosiveness, their length and their talent — that’s what makes them unique,” Malzahn said.
Key, who unabashedly revealed in August that he was aiming for 20 sacks, doesn’t see any reason why his goal should draw ridicule from offensive linemen around the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s attainable,” Key said as he began to lay out the logic underlying his goal. “You play 12 games, you get one sack a game, that’s 12 sacks. You get a half (more), or two, who knows what you’ll come out with.”
Key said that when he spent part of the offseason watching video of his 2015 season, he saw numerous instances in which he could have had sacks that he’d missed with better technique and discipline. So he worked on honing his game in those areas, and also built up his lower-body strength — adding about 10 pounds — to help him gain more leverage on blockers and improve his balance.
He added that the versatile 3-4 scheme installed by first-year LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda should help him.
“It’s going to be hard to chip me when you don’t know when I’m coming, or where I’m coming from,” Key said.
LSU’s single season sack record of 12 was set back in 1989 by linebacker Oliver Lawrence. Key said he simply won’t be satisfied by merely breaking that record, which is why he’s trying to smash it.
“I want to be the best pass rusher to ever come out of college football,” Key said.
Miles sounded almost incredulous when he heard about Key’s goal — not that he wanted to discourage him.
“I think he will have a very successful year not necessarily having 20 tackles for loss or 20 sacks,” Miles said. “But should he have 20 sacks, I would be the first one celebrating that number.”
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Auburn, Alabama, contributed to this report.
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org