Running A Reverse

Nebraska QB Sam Keller went from starter to scout team and, hopefully, back again

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Aug. 21, 2007

By Carolyn Braff

CSTV.com

 



Carolyn Braff

Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for CSTV.com.
E-mail here!

Most players make their way from the scout team to the starting lineup, not the other way around.

 

Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller, clearly, is not most players.

 

Keller has not taken the most direct path through his five-year college career, but as he enters his final season of eligibility, the second-year Cornhusker is back in a familiar position, sitting atop the depth chart with a team that is almost certainly bowl game-bound.

 


 

 

Keller's unusual career began at Arizona State, where he had his coming out party in the final game of his sophomore year. In that first career start, Keller led the Sun Devils to a fourth-quarter come-from-behind victory over Purdue in the Sun Bowl, earned the game's MVP award and established himself as the starter in Tempe.

 

Keller had a record-breaking start to his junior year, throwing for 2,165 yards in seven games and passing for more than 400 yards in back-to-back contests against LSU and Northwestern. He tossed four touchdown passes in each of his first four games, racking up 20 TDs in just over half the season, but disaster struck in game seven - against USC, Keller was sacked five times, threw five interceptions and tore a ligament in his right thumb, ending his season.

 

He reported for fall camp in 2006, but a coaching decision changed everything.

 

"I had lost my starting job and I needed to make a quick decision whether to stay or to go somewhere else," Keller explained. "When I decided I was going to transfer, Nebraska was very quick to show interest."

 

Keller decided to transfer to Nebraska in August and, following NCAA regulations, the former Sun Bowl game MVP spent 2006 on the scout team.

 

"Sam came last year with a very much `what can I do to help the program' mentality," tight end J.B. Phillips said. "I have a great respect for him and how he came in. We always said that we had the best scout team quarterback in the nation because he's down there yelling at freshmen."

 

It was there that Keller won the second MVP award of his career, for being the best offensive player on the team that doesn't get to play.

 

"Last year was tough, adjusting to a new place and I couldn't play," Keller said. "I'm not a guy who likes to watch. The minute I got here I just wanted to work and be of service any way I could, so I figured I could help the scout team by getting the defense ready every week. And by doing that I was keeping my game sharp and staying polished."

 

Having served his year off, Keller is ready to jump back into competition. As Arizona State's leader in career interception percentage (0.0291) and owner of the Sun Devils' second-best career completion percentage (58.2 percent), it's no surprise that Keller was named Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year.

 

Except that when the accolade was announced, he had yet to win the starting job.

 

Callahan announced Keller would be the man under center Monday, but until that time, the senior was locked in battle with four other players for the right to replace last year's Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, Zac Taylor. Junior Joe Ganz topped the list of candidates, having played in five games last season, where he completed 7-of-13 passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns. Junior college transfer Zac Lee, junior Beau Davis and true freshman Patrick Witt were also in the quarterback mix.

 

Although Keller's numbers and experience give him an edge, it's been almost two years since he took a snap in a live game, and that wasn't even in Nebraska. Keller knows he has plenty of catching up to do, so he began the learning process as soon as he arrived in Lincoln.

 

"They've been in the laboratory, so to speak, for all the time they've been here, even with Sam," head coach Bill Callahan said. "He was in every quarterback meeting a year ago. He had an opportunity to really learn the system, even though he did a lot of his time on the scout team. He did go to every quarterback meeting, watched every practice film, took in every coaching point that was made."

 

Absorbing coaches' comments is a step toward understanding an offense, but not the only one.

 

"Learning this offense is a work in progress," Keller said. "I've been working really hard at it now for eight months, just trying to understand the terminology and what we're doing, what we're trying to attack. During the summer I spent a lot of time throwing one-on-one routes with all of my wide receivers to really get a feel for them and understand each of their nuances."

 

Keller's fight for the starting job is not just a matter of pride - it's a timing issue. This is the senior's final year of eligibility, and given the NFL Draft talk that surrounded him before his injury, this season is Keller's last to show the pro scouts that he's still got it. The 6-foot-4 strong-armed quarterback added 10 pounds of muscle in the off-season, bringing him up to 240, and with a talented crop of receivers to work with, the Husker offense should allow him to return to Sun Bowl form.

 

"The offense that presents itself, for us it's 95 percent mental," Phillips said. "It's a system that you've got to learn and once you learn it, it takes a quarterback and makes them shine."

 

Keller is no stranger to big-time games, which is significant when considering the Huskers' 2007 schedule - they host USC Sept. 15 before traveling to Austin to take on Texas in October.

 

"We have high hopes and we have high expectations for our guys," Keller said, sounding more like the coach that he became on scout team than a player in a dead heat for a starting position. "You always want to put yourself up against the best and see where you stack up, so the USC and Texas games are obviously games to circle on your schedule. Those are always very exciting games. The bigger the better for me."

 

Keller's biggest test right now is his next practice, where the senior must continue to prove his worth as the clock on his career continues ticking.

 

Keller has never thought twice about his decision to come to Nebraska and work his way up the ladder all over again, and if all goes according to plan, he should find himself right back where he started - leading his team to victory in a bowl game.

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