September 24, 2009

Keenum proves he belongs among elite QBs

Houston quarterback Case Keenum insists he doesn't enter games against Big 12 schools intent on getting back at those programs for failing to recruit him. Nor does he dwell on how he compares to the more celebrated quarterbacks in that conference.

It only seems that way.

Two weeks ago, Keenum threw three touchdown passes and rushed for a fourth score in a 45-35 upset of Oklahoma State, which was ranked fifth in the nation at the time. Keenum gets another shot at a Big 12 opponent Saturday when Houston (2-0) plays host to Texas Tech (2-1).

A victory would strengthen Houston's status as a potential "BCS buster" because the 17th-ranked Cougars likely would be favored in all the rest of their games. A win also could solidify Keenum as a sleeper Heisman Trophy candidate.

Not bad for a former two-star prospect from Abilene, Texas, who only received one scholarship offer.

"I think I was told if I was 2 inches taller, I could have gone anywhere I wanted," said Keenum, a junior who is officially listed as 6 feet 2. "Whether or not that was true, it's no big deal. I know I'm happy. This is the place for me. I wouldn't rather be anywhere else than where I am, here in Houston.

"I do enjoy representing for guys who only had one scholarship offer or who weren't considered the top recruits in different areas or whatever, just to show that it's not all about how tall you are or how big you are. It's what you can do on the football field."

What Keenum has done has been nothing short of remarkable.

While Florida's Tim Tebow, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy and Texas Tech's Graham Harrell dominated the headlines last season, Keenum led the nation in total offense. He leads all active players in career total offense and ranks second on the career charts in passing yards per game (behind only BYU's Max Hall) and fourth in completion percentage and passing efficiency.

Case sets the pace
Houston quarterback Case Keenum leads all active FBS players in total yards per game. Here's a look at the top 10 players in that category. Players must have participated in at least 15 games to qualify.
Case KeenumHoustonJr.309.0
Max HallBYUSr.306.2
Dan LeFevourCentral MichiganSr.292.1
Colt McCoyTexasSr.282.4
Todd ReesingKansasSr.282.1
Colin KaepernickNevadaJr.277.3
Sam BradfordOklahomaJr.275.6
Austin DavisSouthern MissSoph.266.8
Matt GrotheUSFSr.258.9
Kellen MooreBoise StateSoph.258.7
While skeptics note that Keenum has feasted on poor Conference USA defenses, he has made the most of his opportunities against high-profile opponents. Keenum has thrown for a combined 753 yards and seven touchdowns with only one interception in two matchups with Oklahoma State. Keenum went 37-of-45 for 401 yards with three touchdowns and an interception last season in a 41-24 road victory over eventual Conference USA champion East Carolina. And he passed for 402 yards and six touchdowns without an interception last season in a 70-30 rout of a Tulsa team that went on to finish 11-3.

"Other quarterbacks get the recognition because of the conference they're in, but his leadership and the way he leads this team have been as good as I've seen," Houston running back Bryce Beall said. "What people say that Tebow does in Florida, that's what Case does for us."

Even though he was almost ignored during the recruiting process, Keenum's background suggested he could have this type of success. Keenum grew up in a football family as the son of Steve Keenum, a longtime coach at the high school and college levels.

Keenum - known by a shortened version of his first name, Casey - was holding a football in his hands almost as soon as he started walking. Steve Keenum still remembers an incident that took place nearly two decades ago when he was working as an assistant at Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas.

"He was probably 2 years old and we were in the [NAIA] playoffs and got beat," Steve Keenum recalled. "His mom offhandedly said, 'Well, I guess there's no more football,' and he started crying."

Keenum went on to develop into an all-purpose threat at Abilene's Wylie High. The coach's son never got nervous, no matter the circumstance. He seemed so relaxed in pressure situations that Wylie coach Hugh Sandifer occasionally confused his calm for nonchalance.

"You'd think maybe he wasn't quite as intense as he should be, but he really was very, very intense and focused," Sandifer said. "His presence on the field was coolness.

"At first, I kind of thought, 'Man, what's wrong with him?' But I just started seeing that's how he operates."

Keenum passed for 6,783 yards and 48 touchdowns while rushing for 2,000 yards and 41 more scores at Wylie. Yet those numbers didn't matter to most college coaches, who wouldn't overlook his relative lack of height.

"He didn't fit the norm," Sandifer said. "It's a sad reality. A lot of times, you have to fit the height, weight and 40-time norm, and he didn't really fit that. A lot of people misjudged his abilities and how competitive he was and what a winner he was. It's not an exact science, obviously. He wasn't the tallest or the fastest or the biggest, and some people missed on him."

Continuing the tradition
Case Keenum isn't the first Houston quarterback to make a name for himself on a national stage. Andre Ware set 26 NCAA records on his way to winning the 1989 Heisman, David Klingler finished fifth in the 1990 Heisman balloting and Kevin Kolb was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft. Here's a look at the year-by-year passing statistics of Keenum, Ware, Klingler and Kolb.
(Source: University of Houston sports information department).
When college coaches headed to Abilene to watch a quarterback prospect, they bypassed Keenum and instead went to see Abilene High's Taylor Potts, a three-star recruit who now starts for Texas Tech.

This weekend's game represents a long-awaited showdown between quarterbacks who grew up in the same town. Wylie and Abilene never faced each other when Keenum and Potts were in high school.

The matchup never would have taken place if not for one coach now at a Big 12 school. Keenum had camped at Houston after his sophomore year of high school, and he performed so well that Art Briles - the Houston coach at the time who's now at Baylor - offered a scholarship.

"He was really instinctive, very confident, very intelligent," Briles said. "He just had a kind of aura around him that gave you a lot of confidence, a winner's mentality."

After redshirting in 2006, Keenum threw for 2,259 yards and 14 touchdowns while sharing time as the starter in '07 with Blake Joseph. Briles' departure after the '07 season initially worried Keenum, but he blossomed last season under new coach Kevin Sumlin. Keenum led the nation in total offense and ranked second in passing yards per game to help Houston go 8-5 and win the Armed Forces Bowl.

He threw for 5,020 yards and became one of only eight players in FBS history to reach the 5,000-yard mark in a season. Keenum also threw 44 TD passes and ran for seven more scores while being intercepted 11 times.

The next step in his development would be to establish himself as one of the game's best leaders. During the offseason, Sumlin encouraged Keenum to show more leadership and talk more often to his younger teammates. Keenum admits he prefers to lead by example rather than by offering vocal encouragement, but he agreed to change the way he interacted with teammates as long as it benefited the team.

"[I'm] saying stuff that needs to be said, stepping up and not being afraid of what people might think if I say something or do something," Keenum said. "I'm being more of a vocal leader."

The results are obvious from Houston's record.

Houston followed up a 55-7 blowout of FCS program Northwestern State (La.) by stunning Oklahoma State, its first win over a top-five opponent since a 29-15 upset of No. 4 Texas in 1984. Keenum now is reminding his teammates they can't rest on their laurels as Texas Tech heads to town.

"He doesn't have to say a lot," Sumlin said, "but when he says something, people listen."

Keenum and Co. eventually could have quite a lot to say in the BCS sweepstakes. If Houston sails undefeated through a schedule that includes games with Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, the Cougars could make a strong case that they belong in a BCS game.

If Houston does go unbeaten, expect critics to inevitably point to the Cougars' Conference USA schedule as evidence that they couldn't hang on a week-to-week basis with heavyweight programs from the power conferences. Those complaints undoubtedly will sound familiar to Keenum.

"Coach is always talking about your resume," Keenum said. "Everybody's got their paper resume, but your real resume is what you put on film. ... That's your most important resume."

This week, Keenum gets the chance to add one more item to Houston's BCS resume.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for He can be reached at

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