Passed over no more
Keller set to start at QB for Huskers after leaving Arizona State
By John Henderson Denver Post Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 08/21/2007 01:31:44 AM MDT
Nebraska hopes to stay in the passing lane with senior quarterback Sam Keller, who sat out last season as a transfer. (AP / Dave Weaver)Lincoln, Neb. - When Sam Keller walks into a room, he doesn't look like one of the nation's best quarterbacks from two years ago. He looks like one of the nation's best linebackers now.
Keller is huge. He's 6-feet-4 and 240 pounds. He has a chest seemingly as broad as Nebraska's scoreboard video screen, and his legs look easy to take down only with a Buick. He's loud. He's boisterous. If trash talk were a Nebraska major, he would make the dean's list.
Then again, Keller also doesn't look like a guy who was reduced to tears last year in a coach's office. Or a guy who went from wondering which round he would go in the next NFL draft to which school he would play for. Or a guy who spent last season taking snaps behind a line made up of a bunch of frosh from Broken Bow and Sodtown.
Yes, the Sam Keller named Monday as 20th-ranked Nebraska's starting quarterback is a humbled Sam Keller. Oh, he's not quiet. He's too overjoyed with the cush landing pad he hit after Arizona State blew him out of the college football stratosphere last August.
But he knows he has only one year left to prove he's the quarterback who passed for 461 yards against Louisiana State and for 347 against Southern California in 2005 with the Sun Devils.
"I kind of wondered," he said, "how I could go from being so good to being in Nebraska."
Or how he could go from being so good to not even start. It all started Oct. 8, 2005. In his first five games at Arizona State that season, Keller had one of the greatest starts in Pacific 10 history. He threw four touchdown passes in each of the Sun Devils' first four games, and after five games he had passed for 1,790 yards and 18 touchdowns.
He had charisma. He had chutzpah. Most of all, he had an arm.
"The guy was fantastic and is fantastic," said Colorado offensive coordinator
Mark Helfrich, Keller's position coach at Arizona State. "He's very confident. He's very
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Then on a warm day at Sun Devil Stadium against Oregon, life in the desert for Keller started becoming Dante's Inferno. On a third-and-5 play, Keller scrambled for a first down but his right thumb got caught in a defensive tackle's face mask.
"I got up and it felt like a bullet went through my thumb," he said.
Keller had torn it up. He finished the game and played the next half against Stanford, but no more. He was out for the year. Usually, this isn't foreshadowing disaster. A junior, Keller still had a year left. He had plenty of time to rehab from surgery and be ready for spring camp.
Only one problem: Rudy Carpenter spent Arizona State's last six games in 2005 climbing atop the nation's passing leaders, throwing 17 touchdown passes with two interceptions, topped by four touchdowns in the Sun Devils' 45-40 Insight Bowl victory over Rutgers.
Dirk Koetter, Arizona State's coach at the time, opened up the competition and after an intense, highly scrutinized battle between possibly the nation's top quarterback tandem, Koetter announced Aug. 18 a year ago that Keller would be his starter. Keller celebrated the next day by thrashing the Sun Devils' defense in a scrimmage.
Afterward, Keller was in the weight room when Koetter called him into his office. Sorry, Sam, he said. He had made a mistake. He had changed his mind, and Carpenter would be the starter. Keller was too stunned to ask many questions.
He simply cried.
"I was just completely shocked," he said. "I was floored. It was just unbelievable. My dad was driving out to Vegas. My mom was on the way to the airport. So I called him as quick as I could and said, 'Please come back.' That was as low as I've ever felt."
What happened? No one really knows. Koetter refused to elaborate publicly, but he did speak to the team between the two decisions.
Keller didn't investigate any rumors of character assassination.
"I didn't have any time to do that," he said. "I was already gone."
His father, Mike Keller, a former Michigan All-American who helped start the XFL and is a sports management consultant in Las Vegas, started working the phones. Sam had one week to find a school, move and enroll. He settled on three potential schools: Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado. Helfrich was a huge lure.
But Nebraska's West Coast offense
had started to click, the Huskers had come off an 8-4 season and quarterback Zac Taylor would be gone in a year. Also, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan had watched Keller play for San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, Calif., where Callahan lived while coaching the Oakland Raiders.
"I was thinking about (Colorado) but I had to make a decision fast," Keller said. "With Nebraska and everything they've got going here, you can't lose with that decision. And I haven't lost."
In fact, he won even playing for the scout team while redshirting last year. Normally, transfer quarterbacks are treated like crown princes waiting to adhere to the throne. Not Keller. His diligent work imitating the likes of Missouri's Chase Daniel and Texas' Colt McCoy earned him scout team MVP honors.
"What he expects out of his scout-team players was more than I've ever seen, even when I played scout team," said linebacker Corey McKeon, Keller's best friend on the team. "No one was as demanding like that."
Keller also bonded. He hung out with McKeon, the rest of the defense and the linemen. Thursday nights are big in Lincoln, Neb., and Huskers strength coach Dave Kennedy tried foiling evening pub crawls by holding weight-training sessions on Fridays at dawn. No problem. McKeon and Keller would go to one of the watering holes on O Street and drink a few Belgian Blue Moons on Thursdays at 1 p.m.
But Callahan shoots down any rumors of Keller's work ethic being his downfall at Arizona State.
"You should see him in the weight room," Callahan said. "He's there every day. He works as hard as you can even imagine. He is a solid guy."
Fine, but he had better be solid on the field, too. Until Monday, he still hadn't won the starting job officially, as Callahan was dividing snaps between Keller and junior Joe Ganz, a career backup. But for anyone listening to Callahan talk about the way Keller has soaked up the offense, it was clear who would start the Sept. 1 opener against Nevada.
"He's got stature," Callahan said. "You look at him and he doesn't look like a 240-pound quarterback. You look at him and he's cut. He's ripped. He's put together. He can make all the throws. And he's a tremendous competitor."
Keller said he's not bitter. He's not in contact with anyone at Arizona State anymore. He said he took no satisfaction in Carpenter's struggles last year and Koetter's subsequent firing. And the confidence that came crashing down in that coach's office in the desert has been resurrected on a football field in the Great Plains.
"On the scout team, I realized how much I love football," Keller said. "I realize you can't control the bad things. You can just control how you react. After awhile it became kind of refreshing. I felt like there wasn't any pressure on me. I felt like I could give it just one last crack."
Long way to Lincoln
Sam Keller was named Nebraska's starting quarterback Monday. How he got there:
2003 season: Plays in six games for Arizona State as a freshman, including the second half against UCLA (11-of-21, 79 yards).
Dec. 31, 2004: Makes first start for the Sun Devils, in the Sun Bowl against Purdue. Passes for 370 yards, three touchdowns.
Oct. 8, 2005: Injures right thumb against Oregon, after passing for 1,790 yards and 18 touchdowns in Arizona State's first five games. Has surgery on Nov. 1.
Aug. 18, 2006: Named the ASU starter for the season over Rudy Carpenter. The next day, coach Dirk Koetter changes his mind and names Carpenter the starter.
Aug. 23, 2006: Transfers to Nebraska and has to sit out a season.
Staff writer John Henderson can be reached at 303-954-1299 or email@example.com