BATON ROUGE, La. -- Although LSU expects defensive end Arden Key to return to the active roster before the 2017 season begins -- probably this summer -- his indefinite absence will create uncertainty for the Tigers this spring.
Without Key, who set a school record with 12 sacks last season, or 2016 seniors Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal, who can defensive coordinator Dave Aranda count on to supply a steady pass rush off the edge?
This is most likely a temporary concern. Key will rank among the nation's top pass-rushers once he returns, whenever that may be. The school announced last week that its star junior will spend time away from the team to tend to personal matters, with head coach Ed Orgeron adding that he looks forward "to welcoming him back home to the Tiger family at the appropriate time."
In the meantime, Orgeron and Aranda can offer extra practice reps to the contenders at a spot that has no proven performers behind Key. Here are some of the players who should get a long look this spring:
Andre Anthony: The 2016 ESPN 300 honoree is one of LSU's more intriguing contenders because we have yet to see what he can do. The NCAA ruled Anthony ineligible last season in a dispute over his academic transcript from New Orleans' Miller-McCoy Academy, which shut down in 2015. Anthony was on campus all of last season and was finally cleared to participate by bowl practice last December.
Sci Martin: The resemblance between Key's game and Martin's was a big reason why Martin was such a big get when he officially joined LSU's 2016 recruiting class more than a month after national signing day. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Martin is not quite as rangy as Key (6-6, 238), but he's close. Martin got a taste of SEC competition last season, participating in five games and making Betticket two tackles. He should be in line for a lot more action this fall.
Ray Thornton: Thornton redshirted last season after signing with LSU as the No. 61 overall prospect on the 2016 ESPN 300. He turned heads with his performances in practice late last year, though, and could compete for a starting role this season. Listed at 6-3 and a chiseled 222 pounds, Thornton already looks like someone who can contribute in a hybrid end-outside linebacker role in Aranda's defense. This spring we'll see whether he can continue his progress from late last fall.
Isaiah Washington: Don't sleep on Washington, whose first two seasons at LSU were impacted by injuries. He missed the beginning of the 2015 season after breaking his hand during preseason camp but later appeared in six games, notching three tackles plus a forced fumble against Ole Miss. A preseason knee injury knocked him out of the 2016 season, but he should be good to go this spring.
More help is on the way, too.
Signee K'Lavon Chaisson will not be on campus for spring practice, but he could make an instant impact in this department once he arrives in the summer. Orgeron mentioned several times on national signing day that Chaisson was the top pass-rusher in the 2017 class, and the No. 34 overall prospect on the ESPN 300 seems able to do many of the things that make Key so dangerous.
Once the Tigers are able to team up Key and Chaisson on the edge, their pass rush might give opposing quarterbacks nightmares. But LSU is not to that point yet, and this spring will offer their position mates an opportunity to carve out roles for themselves too.
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