By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Sometimes it takes a village to replace an All-American.
That’s the mantra at this point of training camp for LSU’s young, talented crew of underclassmen outside linebackers working in place of Arden Key.
Key, who set a new single-season sack record last season, is being brought along slowly so far in camp after offseason shoulder surgery. LSU coach Ed Orgeron has put his ace rusher through walk-through reps, but his status for the regular-season opener against BYU remains in doubt.
His loss — both in terms of practice reps and potential game action — translate into opportunity for a quartet of unproven backers eager to show what they can do in the future first-round pick’s stead.
In fact, picking up the slack has become a rallying cry for the group.
“Anything can happen,” redshirt-freshman Andre Anthony said. “There’s not really any 1’s, 2’s, 3’s or 4’s right now. We’re all like one team, but if the opportunity presents itself, you’ve got to take it.
“Hopefully (Key) is (back for the opener), but we’re all ready for whenever our name is called.”
Anthony and fellow redshirt-freshman Ray Thornton are typically the first two names mentioned as potential fill-ins for Key. Then comes true freshman K’Lavon Chaisson, touted as a blue-chip Key clone, and sophomore Sci Martin, who is working back from an injury of his own.
Both Anthony and Thornton benefitted greatly from Key’s leave of absence in the spring, receiving countless extra reps in practice to get themselves up to speed after taking redshirts.
“I wouldn’t say I’m far ahead,” Thornton said of the extra spring work. “I think everybody is pretty much on the same page. I’m definitely learning a lot from taking all those reps and each rep is a learning experience. There’s certain things I look for in certain plays.”
It’s anyone’s guess who’d get the starting nod at the “Buck” spot if Key isn’t able to make it back for BYU, but what’s clear from speaking to the candidates is that each backer could have a role to play.
Anthony was a conventional defensive end in high school, a natural pass rusher who’s had to learn about coverage responsibilities and playing in space. Those areas of his game have come a long way since he joined the program during bowl practice.
Thornton is the most versatile of the group, continuing to flip flop between the “Buck” and more coverage-intensive “Field” position throughout the spring and thus far into training camp. His focus has been training his eyes in hopes of becoming better at anticipating what’s coming.
Chaisson is an explosive athlete and, according to Orgeron, “one of the best pass rush prospects” he’s ever signed in decades of coaching defensive line.
“We’re all full of speed, strength, everything,” Anthony said. “Everybody is not the same, but we’re the same because we all bring a lot to the table. Everybody has their own type of finesse that they can bring to the team.”
Becoming more interchangeable has been a focus in the early going of camp, they say.
Following Thornton’s lead, LSU coaches have encouraged the crew of “Buck” linebackers to become more adept in coverage and playing the other spot in case they’re forced to play it in a pinch.
The added benefit of course would be making the defense far less predictable in terms of who’ll rush and who’ll drop back into coverage.
“I feel like us learning both sides of the field will put us ahead in a lot of aspects,” Thornton said.
“You can really use us anywhere on the field,” Anthony added.