BATON ROUGE - Just as LSU begins preparations to play one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference in Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald, the Tigers have their best front seven weapon back.
Junior outside linebacker Arden Key, who set the school record with 12 sacks last season, will play for the first time this season after shoulder surgery in the off season for the No. 11 Tigers (2-0) at State (2-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN in the SEC opener for both teams.
"Arden Key has been cleared to play this week," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said in his opening statement at his weekly press conference on Monday. "He's going to work hard all week in full contact, and we'll play him as much as we can. We'll see during the week, see how much he can do."
Key did a lot the last time he played. In LSU's 29-9 win over No. 13 Louisville in the Citrus Bowl on Dec. 31, he sacked quarterback Lamar Jackson twice to tie and break the school record previously set by Gabe Northern in 1994 with 11. Key, who signed with LSU out of Hapeville Charter Academy in Atlanta, Georgia in 2015, was a first team All-SEC player in 2016 by the Associated Press as he led the Tigers with 14.5 tackles for loss.
"We had planned the whole time and thought this was a game that he would be ready at," Orgeron said. "We weren't sure, though. But obviously he is. He worked very hard. Every week, his strength and flexibility was getting better and better, closer to our target. And today, he's at that target."
And not a moment too soon. Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior, is No. 3 in the Southeastern Conference in total offense with 257.5 yards a game. He is 10th in the SEC in rushing with 76 yards a game as he has rushed 17 times for 152 yards. He has completed 28 of 47 passes this season for 363 yards and a touchdown. Fitzgerald completed 12 of 18 passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns in a 57-21 win at Louisiana Tech Saturday while rushing for 111 yards.
"He's tough. He can run the football," Orgeron said. "And he can read defenses. Obviously, Fitzgerald is very smart."
In a 23-20 LSU win over State last season, Key hurried quarterback Damian James into an incomplete pass on third-and-eight from the State 25 with under two minutes to play. Then on fourth down, Key sacked James and forced a fumble, and LSU ran out the clock to seal the win. Key finished with five tackles and two sacks.
Key was nagged by a shoulder injury late last season and missed the regular season finale against Texas A&M. He returned for the bowl game, but the shoulder did not heal well. He did not have the shoulder surgery until last May and did not start practicing with the team amid some contact until the last two weeks. Strangely, he took what LSU termed a leave of absence from the program while remaining in school during the spring semester before returning in January.
The 6-6 Key is up to 265 pounds after playing at 235 last season. He played very fast in 2016 and developed into one of the top projections for the 2018 NFL Draft should he decide to leave school a year early.
"He's a little bit heavier than he played last year," Orgeron said. "So, he's going to have to get into game shape. I'm going to see how he does this week in practice. He's going to take full hits, full contact for the first time. And then we'll see what's happening."
Key's position at outside linebacker has been well manned by true freshman K'Lavon Chaisson, who had two sacks in LSU's 45-10 win over Chattanooga Saturday night. Chaisson has seven tackles on the season with a quarterback hurry.
"I will say this, K'Lavon Chaisson is a very formidable backup. We can rotate him if we have to give him breaks. All depends on his conditioning," Orgeron said.
LSU is also getting an excellent pass rush from the other side at outside linebacker with senior Corey Thompson, who leads the team with 3.5 sacks.
"They've got a ridiculous amount of talent," State coach Dan Mullen said. "They're an excellent football team - a top 10 football team. So, we've got to take another step forward this week."
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