- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Former NFL defensive end Chuck Smith tries to temper his enthusiasm over Arden Key's potential, but he can't help himself.
On one hand, Smith remembers that he is discussing a 19-year-old who has yet to play his first down for the LSU Tigers. On the other, Smith witnessed what Key can do while instructing him on the finer points of the pass rush at his training program in Atlanta.
That was all Smith needed to predict the biggest of big things for his young protégé.
"When I saw his skill set and some of the things that he can do and where he's going to be -- he's just a freshman, but one of his goals should be one day to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft," Smith said. "There's no other way to put it. He's that good."
Smith played and coached at Tennessee and was an All-Pro defensive end with the Atlanta Falcons during a nine-year NFL career. The man knows a special skill set when he sees one, and Key's size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) and ability to do uncommon things as a college freshman has Smith envisioning immediate success.
Full disclosure on Smith: He had Key, the No. 24 overall prospect on the ESPN 300, at his "Big Skill Program," where the former Vol tutored him on everything from swim moves to football IQ.
Key credits that experience for preparing him to potentially make an instant impact at LSU, a program whose pass rush needs a jolt after recording just 19 sacks in 2014.
"[I learned] when to speed rush, when to swim, when to spin. I learned the different steps of the offensive tackles," Key said.
"It's Chuck Smith. You learn something from someone who was in the league for nine seasons, if he tells me something, I'm going to follow it. He's been in the league for nine seasons. That's what I'm trying to get to."
That possibility doesn't seem so remote now that Key is on campus. He didn't arrive in Baton Rouge until the day before preseason camp opened, as the NCAA did not clear him to enroll until two weeks after LSU's summer session started.
The delay was disappointing, but Key dedicated himself to his training after allowing a short time to pout.
"I gave myself a week-and-a-half," Key said. "I was like, 'Man, do I still want to play football because this happened?' I was so ready to leave, so anxious to leave, and then when something happens, you fall back on it a little bit."
Once camp opened, however, teammates noticed that their young teammate looked like he had been on campus the entire summer. Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Quentin Thomas said Key immediately fit in from a mental standpoint, as well.
Thomas predicted of Key's freshman season, "a minimum for him would be eight sacks." Never mind that eight sacks was the SEC freshman record until Texas A&M's Myles Garrett broke Jadeveon Clowney's mark with 11.5 last season.
"The guy doesn't have a lack of effort and the guy pass rush wise is a freak. I don't think I've seen another end rush like that since [Barkevious] Mingo, and that's a compliment," Thomas said of a former teammate who was the No. 6 pick in the 2013 NFL draft. "And the guy can play the run. Some guys come in and kind of slack off like, 'I don't know the plays,' but he don't have that. The guy is hungry."
Maybe someday Key will accomplish what Smith and Thomas believe is within his reach. Or, as with most freshmen, maybe he won't become a star right away. But Key's older teammates already believe he will add something to LSU's defense this season, and the freshman is setting out to prove them correct.
"When I got comfortable was when all the older guys started coming around, saying, 'OK, you're pretty good. We're going to take you under our wings and teach you different techniques. You can help us. We need you. Got to get your mind right. Get in the playbook,' " Key said. "Then everything started to slow down. OK, now I'm back where I need to be on the field and I feel like I can really produce."