Key’s latest commitment leaves USC on outside looking in

South Carolina waits to welcome its next class of football signees to Williams-Brice Stadium. (File/Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA)

COLUMBIA — It wasn’t what South Carolina had hoped to hear from Arden Key. Then again, it also wasn’t the first time the talented but mercurial defensive end prospect had left the Gamecocks guessing.

One of USC’s biggest undecided targets heading into National Signing Day, Key appeared on a Fox Sports South program Monday night and announced his most recent commitment – to LSU. It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that’s seen the four-star prospect twice commit to and then de-commit from Steve Spurrier’s team.

“Made my mind up this morning,” Key said Monday night on Fox Sports South. “I wrote the names on paper and put them in a hat. Then I was just choosing. I did five tries, and the school I’m about to announce, they came up the most.”

Welcome to Arden’s world, another example of how tenuous the recruiting process can be, given that players aren’t bound to a college until Wednesday when they sign a letter of intent. Key has kept the Gamecocks guessing since 2013, when he first committed to and then de-committed from USC as a junior. After another commitment in June, he backed off again in a Twitter post Jan. 6. The move was hardly a surprise, given that Key had visited Louisville and LSU in the days prior, and has visited Miami and LSU again in the days since.

Key’s announcement Monday night isn’t binding until the paperwork goes through. As for the reason behind Key’s very public indecision — no one is really sure.

“It’s got to be an attention thing, that’s just my guess,” Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals.com, said prior to Key’s latest commitment. “Commits once, de-commits, commits a second time, and then when we come into the time when it’s temping for kids to take visits and everybody’s in your home and you’re being told you’re the greatest thing ever by numerous programs, he de-commits again and takes those visits. I don’t know where he ends up.”

How uncommon is a player committing and decommitting twice? “Very rare,” Farrell said. “Usually when you de-commit from a school, you’ve cut ties or they’ve fallen very low on your list. But not with him.” Had Key committed to USC again, he would have been “the first kid I know of historically to commit to the same school three times,” Farrell added.

Key, out of Hapeville Charter School in College Park, Ga., was among two dozen recruits who visited South Carolina the weekend of Jan. 24. He is rated by Rivals as the 13th-best defensive end nationally, but his ability has been trumped by the drama surrounding his decision.

“Arden Key is easily this year’s winner of best recruiting soap opera in Georgia,” said Michael Carvell, who covers recruiting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It seems like every day there’s a new twist. Arden is what makes recruiting fun to cover for a sportswriter, but probably a five-star headache for a few college coaches. Committing twice to the same college is rare, but not unheard of. Committing for a third time to the same school is like seeing a unicorn. I can’t ever remember that happening.”

NCAA rules prevent college coaches from mentioning recruits by name to the media until they sign with the school. But in comments to reporters last month, Spurrier seemed well aware of Key’s public waffling.

“I think every now and then some of our recruits mess around with the media. I hope that’s all they’re doing is messing around — saying one thing and hopefully meaning another,” Spurrier said Jan. 7, the day after Key’s second de-commitment. “But we’ll see. You recruit until Feb 4, and on Feb. 4 we’ll find out what we’ve got.”

South Carolina also lost another commitment Monday when defensive back Damon Arnette flipped to Ohio State. As for Key, ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said the 6-5, 230-pounder has a “high ceiling for development. I think he could be a guy who develops into a really disruptive force at the next level,” he added. But Farrell, who had USC’s class rated 14th one week before Signing Day, didn’t think Key alone would have been enough to lift the Gamecocks into the top 10.

“I think it would be very hard for them to push into the top 10,” Farrell said. “We take your best 20 and we rank those. He would definitely be in that 20, no doubt about it. But the kid he would be moving out would be one of the lower five-stars, so I don’t think he would make a huge difference. He’s not a push-you-into-the-top-10 kind of guy. But he could keep you in the top 15, which is equally as important.”

By all accounts, Key isn’t a make-or-break recruit for South Carolina. But that perception may linger given the instability within USC’s recruiting class in the wake of this past season, and how many times Key and the Gamecocks reunited only to break up again.

“Unfortunately, Arden Key’s decision will greatly impact the public’s perception of the success of this year’s class, mainly because it has been so widely publicized,” Carvell said. “But South Carolina put itself in that awkward position by giving him a third opportunity to go there.”