Huskers' new QB looking to put past behind him
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Arizona State football media guide reveals Sam Keller threw 20 touchdown passes in 2005, the eighth highest single-season total in school history. It documents he completed 35 passes against LSU that season, and threw 56 times against LSU and Oregon during his only season as starter.
Keller's disfigured right thumb is a more painful reminder of his time with the Sun Devils. A huge knot protrudes from where his thumb meets his hand, the lasting scar of a torn ligament that cost him his starting job at Arizona State and nearly derailed his dreams of playing in the NFL.
"I played in a lot of great games there," Keller said.
But games and statistics hardly tell his tale.
It was more than a year ago when then-Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter pulled the rug out from under Keller. Koetter had named Keller, the team's senior quarterback, the starter before the Sun Devils' final scrimmage. But Koetter changed his mind less than 48 hours later and gave the job to sophomore Rudy Carpenter, who had performed brilliantly after Keller was hurt in 2005.
Five days after Koetter's abrupt about-face, Keller enrolled at Nebraska, where he had to sit out last season under NCAA rules. Cornhuskers coach Bill Callahan named Keller the team's starting quarterback earlier this week. Keller will take the field for the first time in nearly 22 months when Nebraska opens the season against Nevada at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 1.
"This team is very anxious and ready," Keller said. "This team is outstanding."
Perhaps no Cornhusker is as anxious as Keller, who hasn't played in a game since he injured his right thumb while trying to stiff-arm Oregon's Haloti Ngata in a 31-17 loss to Oregon on Oct. 8, 2005. The season-ending injury thwarted what had been a remarkable season and career to that point. "This is my NFL this year," Keller said. "This year is what it all boils down to for me. I've always been a big-game guy and this is an entire big-game moment. It's a you-better-be-ready kind of deal."
Keller has seemingly always been ready. In his first college start, he threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns and was named MVP in a 27-23 win over Purdue in the Sun Bowl, a game in which he started in place of the injured Andrew Walter. As a junior the next season, Keller threw for more than 2,000 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions in the Sun Devils' first seven games.
Carpenter took over and played spectacularly. He threw for 2,273 yards and 17 touchdowns and led the country in pass efficiency (175.01). Carpenter threw only two interceptions in 228 pass attempts and was named MVP in a 45-40 victory over Rutgers in the Insight Bowl after throwing for 467 yards and four touchdowns.
Clearly, Koetter faced a difficult decision during preseason camp in 2006. He had two proven quarterbacks and only one starting job. Keller said he outworked Carpenter last summer and outplayed him during the team's fall camp at Camp Tontozona in the northern Arizona mountains. When the team returned to Tempe, it didn't take long for Koetter to name Keller the starter.
"I thought I'd outplayed him in that final scrimmage," Keller said. "I thought I'd played well. It was really close, but I thought I'd done everything to earn the spot. So did he. You can only have one quarterback. Somebody had to start."
What transpired in the next 24 hours is unclear. Mike Keller, the quarterback's father, said Carpenter and his father met with Koetter and threatened to transfer.
"Really, all we got from Dirk was this was his decision and he had to make it," said Mike Keller, who was an All-American defensive end at Michigan and linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys. "He spent two hours with Rudy Carpenter and his father. All I can think is there were things said during that meeting that precipitated the decision. I think Dirk was swayed by whatever was said during that meeting. I was told by other people that Rudy threatened to transfer.
"I guess Dirk felt he could have both quarterbacks or lose one of them. If he was going to lose one, he'd rather have the quarterback he was going to have for three years, instead of the one he'd have for only one year."
But sources close to the Arizona State program said several of the Sun Devils' veteran players went to Koetter and lobbied for Carpenter to get the starting job. Arizona State lost four of the seven games Keller started in 2005; Carpenter rallied them to a 4-1 record to finish the season
"I think it was a business decision," Keller said. "The players and coaches made a business decision and chose to go with Rudy for the long term. You've got to respect that. A lot of decisions in football are business decisions."
After Koetter broke the news to Keller, the quarterback was faced with a difficult business decision of his own. He could remain at Arizona State and hope to win the job back, or at least play enough to impress NFL scouts. He could transfer to a Division I-AA school and play immediately, or choose a Division I-A team and sit out the 2006 season.
"Sam didn't want to be at a place where he couldn't trust the people he was working for," Mike Keller said. "I've been in the game for a long time. I've been in professional football and I've seen a lot of coaching staffs. I love coaches. But I've never seen anything like I saw at Arizona State last year."
It didn't take long for Keller to come to a conclusion. His father, who worked as an assistant general manager in the NFL and helped organize the now-defunct USFL, NFL Europe and XFL, contacted coaches at several Division I-A schools to gauge their interest in his son. Keller considered transferring to Colorado, Louisville, Oklahoma, Nebraska and UTEP.
After meeting with Koetter, Keller contemplated his future for less than 24 hours. The day after being told he was no longer the Sun Devils' starter, Keller packed his belongings and began loading his furniture into a U-Haul truck. He flew to Nebraska three days later and was enrolled in classes only six days after practicing with the Sun Devils for the final time.
Even now, Keller wonders how his Arizona State career would have turned out if he hadn't injured his thumb.
"It tough," Keller said. "It was just the whole transition, period. I was so confident going into my senior year at Arizona State. After what happened, I thought a lot more about football and myself and about people. It made me more humble. It put things into perspective."
Keller also wondered if he'd stick out like a sore thumb at Nebraska. Quarterback Zac Taylor, who had transferred to Nebraska after two seasons at Wake Forest and another at a junior college, was entering his final season with the Cornhuskers in 2006. Taylor had helped coach Bill Callahan, a former Oakland Raiders coach, revolutionize the way Nebraska played football. Instead of the earth-moving ground attacks of Tom Osborne and Frank Solich, Callahan installed a pass-happy West Coast offense, which lit up the Nebraska skies like never before.
Taylor set school records for passing yards, completions and attempts in his first season as a starter in 2005, then threw for 3,197 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a senior. Taylor led the Cornhuskers to a 9-5 record last season, a great improvement from the painful 5-6 record in Callahan's first season in 2004, but still short of Big Red's great expectations.
While sitting out the 2006 season, Keller figured the best way to learn Callahan's intricate offense was to run the scout team against the No. 1 defense. He did it every day for five months and never complained.
"I wasn't going to just sit around," Keller said. "I really thought the best way I could learn the offense and get polished was to go against our defense every day. I'm a really competitive guy. I like to play football. That free-wheeling was almost like a sandlot game. It was fun."
Middle linebacker Corey McKeon said Keller's work with the scout team last season earned him more respect than he anything he'd accomplished at Arizona State.
"It had a big impact," McKeon said. "I think it showed a lot of players that he came in and was willing to make other players better. He didn't worry about running the scout team and making the defense look bad. He bossed some guys around and helped them get better. He earned a lot of respect and let his teammates know that he had the leadership to be our quarterback." McKeon said Keller will bring a much tougher approach to Nebraska's offense. At least Keller looks tough. He often sports unkempt hair, an unshaven face and tattoos cover both his arms. "Zac was a great player and a great quarterback," McKeon said. "But he lacked that killer instinct and the ability to go after somebody's throat right away. Zac tried to feel his way through it. Sam has that killer instinct. He likes to go after people. He doesn't like to sit back and see what people are going to give him. He likes to be the enforcer. He always tells me if he wasn't a quarterback, he'd be over with me on defense."
McKeon, one of Keller's closest friends at Nebraska, said the quarterback also had to adjust to living in Lincoln.
"The first thing I ever asked him was, 'How could you leave Arizona State for the middle of nowhere?'" McKeon said. "At Arizona State, you've got the best girls. You've got the best weather. You've got the best of everything. Why would you come here?"
"I had to learn how to drive in the snow," Keller said. "I'd never done that before." McKeon said Keller also had to learn to live at Nebraska's slower pace. "He had to learn to kind of slow down a little bit," McKeon said. "I'm not saying this university isn't great and it's not a fun lifestyle, but he had to learn to slow down. Down there, he had to be in the spotlight and do what everyone else was doing. He was hitting the nightspots down there. We have fun here, but it's not quite as fast."
Keller's life is about to speed up again, though. Earlier this week, Callahan turned over the keys to his offense to Keller, who beat out junior Joe Ganz for the starting job. Keller insists he wasn't anointed the starter because of his lofty reputation; he had to earn the job during spring practice and summer workouts. He stayed in Lincoln this summer, spending eight hours each day either watching film or throwing with receivers. Callahan said Keller and Ganz were neck-and-neck going into preseason camp, so Keller had to play well during the first three weeks of camp.
"I'm used to quarterback controversies," Keller said. Keller is hoping this one has a happier ending for everyone involved. While Keller stood on the Nebraska sideline last season, Arizona State's program imploded without him. The Sun Devils started the season 3-0, but lost three games in a row and finished 7-6. Carpenter struggled as the team's undisputed starter, throwing 14 interceptions and completing 55.4 percent of his passes. "The thing Dirk didn't take into account was Rudy wasn't prepared to be 'the guy,'" Mike Keller said. "There are certain guys in college football and in the NFL who aren't prepared to take on that leadership role and learn to forget what's happened in the past, whether it was throwing an interception or having a bad play. I think the kid's that there now still has to learn that." Koetter paid dearly for mishandling his quarterbacks. Before last season ended, he was fired as Arizona State's coach, but finished the season. Former University of Miami and San Francisco 49ers coach Dennis Erickson was hired from Idaho to replace him.
"When he was fired, I didn't have any satisfaction," Keller said. "It was just a business decision. That's the way college football is." Koetter, who was hired as offensive coordinator by the Jacksonville Jaguars, couldn't be reached for comment. "Dirk let himself get railroaded by politics," Mike Keller said. "I love head coaches and they always land on their feet, but I hate it for all the fine assistant coaches who were there." Mike Keller said he never talked to Koetter after his son left Arizona State. "It's all water under the bridge as far as Sam is concerned," Mike Keller said. "If I'm still alive in 10 years and I run into Dirk, I'm sure we'll go have a beer. But I've got no intention of calling, talking about it or reliving it." Neither does his son, who said he hasn't talked to any of his former teammates, coaches or anyone else at Arizona State since he left. "It's all a distant memory," Keller said. "It's life. It's just the way things went. It was nobody's fault. I don't have any ill regard or hard feelings. I'm happy to be here. I've got a place to be and everything happened for a reason. It's just life." Life begins anew for Keller on Sept. 1. Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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