Sam Keller was expected to claim the Nebraska starting quarterback job easily this spring.
The rocket-armed transfer from Arizona State still might be the Cornhuskers' starting quarterback when the defending Big 12 North champions begin play Sept. 1 against Nevada. But the current quarterback competition has been another element in an eventful spring practice for coach Bill Callahan.
The Cornhuskers lost top cover cornerback Zack Bowman to a knee injury that will keep him out of action for up to six months. Backfield depth was depleted after 2006 leading rusher Brandon Jackson left school with a year of eligibility remaining to declare for the NFL draft. Marlon Lucky has returned after being hospitalized for several days for an undisclosed ailment before practice began. And I-back Kenny Wilson was lost for the season with a knee injury that he suffered while moving a television set.
Those factors have made for spring work that Callahan has described as "freakish." He probably has a few more words unsuitable for a family Web site under his breath.
The biggest immediate question is at quarterback. And Callahan appears more than willing to take his sweet time in determining a replacement for Zac Taylor as his starter.
Keller, a fifth-year senior, transferred to Nebraska last summer after he was beaten out for the Arizona State starting job by Rudy Carpenter. He had posted monster numbers two seasons ago before injuring his right thumb.
Incumbent Joe Ganz has been a backup for the last three seasons, receiving little playing time but exhibiting strong understanding of Callahan's West Coast offense. Beau Davis also is in the mix, despite receiving little work the last two seasons after being thrust into immediate playing time as a freshman in 2004.
"These guys are all different," Callahan said. "Each of them brings something unique to the table. I think the competition is fluid at this time -- we're learning a lot about all of them and we're in no rush to move on at this time."
The winner of the quarterback battle will replace Taylor, who smashed virtually every Nebraska passing record during an underrated two-season stint as starter that culminated with the Cornhuskers' first Big 12 championship game appearance since 1999.
"It has really been a lot closer than most people thought it would be," guard Matt Slauson said. "Even with the experience that Joey and Beau had, I think most people thought Sam would be the guy. But Joey and Beau are battling right now. It's very close."
Slauson said the competition will only help as the Cornhuskers try to improve on last season's 9-5 record that was marred by late-season losses to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship and to Auburn in the Cotton Bowl.
"If you have that battle for playing time, it will make somebody have to rise up to win the job," Slauson said. "That will only benefit our team, as well as ensure we should have somebody pretty good behind him as a backup."
Taylor was the agent of change as Callahan transformed Nebraska from an option-based running attack to his favored West Coast passing philosophy. That transformation was the major reason Keller decided to go to Nebraska over schools such as Oklahoma and Colorado when he left Arizona State.
Keller emerged nationally after he earned the Most Valuable Player award in Arizona State's 2004 Sun Bowl victory over Purdue, ripping the Boilermakers for 370 passing yards and three touchdown passes.
The following season, the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder completed 58.7 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,165 yards and 20 touchdowns in seven games before a torn thumb ligament ended his season. Keller threw for at least 347 yards and four touchdowns in four of his first five starts. But his season was marred after he was sacked five times and threw five interceptions in a 38-28 loss to Southern California.
Those struggles opened the door for then-Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter's controversial demotion of Keller in favor of Carpenter, who led the nation in passing after Keller's 2005 injury.
"Coach Koetter and Arizona State made a business decision and I had respect it as one," Keller said. "I could either be satisfied sitting on the bench there, or I could go someplace, redshirt for a season, gather myself and make a serious run for some playing time. I didn't want to roll the dice waiting for an injury at ASU. I figured I would have a better shot someplace else."
Koetter announced his intention to start Carpenter shortly before the Sun Devils' opener last season. Keller had little time to make his decision and still keep his redshirt season.
"I basically had about three days to make my decision," Keller said. "But I liked what coach Callahan was doing. I was familiar with his attack after growing up in the Bay Area when he was with Oakland. I thought it would be fun to be here."
Even with the intense competition for playing time, Keller has learned Callahan's philosophy quickly.
"This offense is very similar conceptually to what I've done before, and I'm used to attacking a defense in the same way," Keller said. "The terminology is a little more professional and I'm looking forward to my chance."
The knock against Keller at Arizona State was that he tended to lock on his receivers and force passes into double coverage. He's trying to learn a more moderate approach in Callahan's attack.
"He's a great kid who you can tell really loves football," Callahan said. "He'll be in here at 6:30 a.m. watching film and he's really delved into what we're asking him to do. He's an exciting guy and very competitive. That comes out in his leadership."
Keller learned about life in the fishbowl that is Nebraska football when he was cited for disturbing the peace last month. He allegedly yelled profanities at a woman who snatched a parking spot he was waiting for in a campus parking garage.
The woman told police that Keller got out of his car, yelled at her and threw a plastic cup at her car. He was later cited for disturbing the peace, a Class III misdemeanor under Nebraska law that is punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine. Keller will appear in court on April 26.
Shortly after the incident, Keller made a public statement before Nebraska media members in which he expressed his remorse about the incident.
"It was just a silly situation and I overreacted," Keller said. "You are not representing your team in the way you should as a leader when something like that takes place. The best thing I could do is come forward and say I wanted to fix it. It was kind of an embarrassing deal and something I've learned from."
And it's made him even more eager for the Cornhuskers' spring scrimmage Saturday, which is expected to draw more than 70,000 fans. It will be Keller's first chance to play before a crowd since his thumb injury.
"It's special for me to have a second chance and be able to play at a school like Nebraska," Keller said. "It couldn't be a better decision for me. It's been rewarding so far, and I'll keep working to plug away and try to get a chance to play here."
Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.