It happened a year ago today.
On Feb. 15, 2017, LSU star Arden Key announced that he was taking a leave of absence from the program for “personal reasons.” In what was supposed to be the early stages of Key’s NFL Draft/All-America hype train, the junior instead began his year of obscurity by going off the rails.
He wasn’t made available to speak to the media throughout 2017, and the only time Key was heard from publicly was when he took to Twitter to announce that he wasn’t going to sit out the season.
Key eventually got back to football over the summer, but his struggles didn’t end. He showed up out of shape and he couldn’t stay healthy, which many draft analysts traced to his tumultuous offseason. Once a lock for a top-10 selection in the draft, Key might not crack the first round this April.
It’s an incomplete story. Key didn’t exactly fall, but he certainly isn’t as highly regarded as he was at this time last year. Only time will tell if he was just in a funk or if his drama-filled season was at the root of some bigger personal issues. Either way, LSU didn’t maximize its defensive potential in 2017 and Key’s bank account won’t be quite as rich.
If nothing else, though, hopefully Key’s story is one that Devin White can learn from.
There’s great pressure in being perceived as “the next man up.” That’s what Key was at this time last year thanks to his monster sophomore season in 2016. That’s what White is thanks to his monster sophomore season in 2017.
For the next 6 1/2 months, White won’t play a football game, but he’ll likely be told how big of a year he’s going to have by everyone who has a microphone (including me).
He’d better get used to seeing things like this:
— Marcus Spears (@mspears96) January 23, 2018
Top 10 ILB/MLB returnees 2018:
1 Devin White/LSU
2 Troy Dye/Oregon
3 Paddy Fisher/Northwestern
4 Tyrel Dodson/Texas A&M
5 Cameron Smith/USC
6 TJ Edwards/Wisconsin
7 Devin Bush/Michigan
8 Logan Wilson/Wyoming
9 De’Jon Harris/Arkansas
10 Azeez Al-Shaair/FAU
— CFB Focus (@cffmwachsman) February 2, 2018
— Jacques Doucet (@JacquesDoucet) January 1, 2018
White is a dog, as Kwon Alexander said. There’s no denying that. The ground White covers is something special — he was the SEC’s leading tackler in 2017 — and with another year in Dave Aranda’s system, many assume he’ll be projected a first-round pick come this time next year.
But being a dog means grinding even when everyone is telling you how great you are. Key dealt with that last year.
Ross Dellenger of The Advocate wrote a story on Key’s return in September in which Arden Key Sr. shed a little light on why exactly his son took the leave of absence.
“It was time to take time away from football,” Key Sr. told The Advocate. “He lost himself. He had so much success early. All the pressures of being a student-athlete. We forget he’s still a kid trying to balance life out. It was all coming down on him.”
That’s such a telling quote. Whatever it was that sidelined Key — something tells me an NFL general manager will ask him a question or two about that — clearly he was not in the right mental state of mind to handle all of the attention that was thrown his way when the calendar turned to 2017.
I hope we don’t see a similar turn with White. Based on his past, he isn’t a likely candidate to fall into bad habits. White was one of 10 scholarship players with a GPA better than 3.0 last semester. All signs point to him being a team-first guy who’s willing to do whatever is asked of him.
Having said that, success can make anyone complacent. I believe Key’s 2017 would have been significantly different if he had a bit less hype entering his final season. Nobody really knows how they’re going to handle success until they have to. White is going to be in a similar position after his major rise in his second season in Baton Rouge.
White already had to answer questions about dealing with his newfound stardom. Like, what exactly was it that fueled his emergence in 2017?
“I feel like this year, from a mental standpoint, I asked Coach Aranda, how can I be better? And I feel like he laid out a formula,” White told 247Sports.com before the Citrus Bowl. “And I took advantage of it.”
White has another opportunity to take advantage of. It’s the same one that Key had a year ago. For one reason or another, though, Key couldn’t follow the formula.
It’s White’s turn to be that guy. Can he take another step up and earn first team All-America honors en route to NFL riches? Or will the weight of the pressures of being “the guy” in Baton Rouge come down on him like they did for Key? Only time will tell.
White’s year begins now.
Source: Saturday Down South