There was a moment when Houston quarterback Case Keenum didn't think he would see the football field again — and it was well after the NCAA granted him a sixth season.
It was May, eight months after Keenum suffered a torn ACL while trying to tackle a UCLA defender who had intercepted his pass, and rehab wasn't going the way he'd hoped. With just three months until fall camp, Keenum wasn't able to straighten his leg — a key component in the healing of the ligaments — and the frustration was pushing him to tears.
For most of the spring, Keenum pushed himself in therapy with only minimal results. He was starting to face the prospect that even if he were to make it back on the field he would be a shell of the star quarterback he once was.
"In March, April, May it was painful, and I don't think he was putting too much pressure on himself, but I think there was some concern that he wouldn't be able to get back and that might be more difficult than any pressure," Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There was a concern that this thing wasn't healing the way it was supposed to be. He wasn't able to straighten it out and he was concerned that he couldn't get back to where he was physically. There was some real, real concern and doubt around May."
In an attempt to quell Keenum's frustration, Sumlin and the Houston training staff outlined goals for him to reach each week so he could see the tangible progress.
"It was so he could physically see he was getting better," Sumlin said. "There were a couple months there where all he knew was that it hurt, and he couldn't straighten it out and that was very depressing.
"It helped him set goals, see that he was making those goals and verified that he was getting better. I know that sounds simple, but it was very important because that's how he thinks."
The entire process not only helped heal Keenum's knee, but also his mind. He knew when he was injured that without a sixth season, his future football prospects were nonexistent. Because of the time when the injury occurred in 2010, there was no way for Keenum to be ready for the NFL Combine last spring, and there was no telling whether a team would even want to take a chance on a busted quarterback. But this season was his second chance, a chance not only to help his team to a conference championship and a potential BCS bowl berth, but also to become more attractive to NFL scouts.
With five seasons of film in the can, NFL scouts have been able to see Keenum mature from a system quarterback to a player who can survey the field, change defenses and fit passes into tight windows. While he leads the country in total offense (397.42 yards per game), total passing yards (4,726) and passing yards per game (393.83), and has broken numerous NCAA records, the 43 touchdowns to three interceptions are what stand out. It's an absurd number considering Keenum played in just three games before being injured a year ago and already had five picks.
But is this year's resume enough to make Keenum a draft pick or at the very least get him on an NFL roster? Wes Bunting, the National Football Post's director of college scouting, thinks so. He said that while Keenum doesn't have the size and the arm strength to make all of the throws in the NFL, he has shown some improvement this year and as he gets older will get stronger and more precise. While it might not make him a starter, it should make him a quality backup.
"Is this a guy I'm going to trust to win football games for me in the NFL week in and week out? Absolutely not," Bunting said. "But as a No. 2 or No. 3 guy early ... When you watch around the NFL and Tyler Palko's your backup, you can't convince me that this guy doesn't have a spot in the NFL. I think he could be that No. 3 guy early, he'll develop into a No. 2. Kind of like what the Packers are trying to do with Graham Harrell. I think he can make a comfortable living in the NFL as a reserve-type quarterback."
The NFL is not ripe with starting quarterbacks who hail from spread systems. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees would be the best example (incidentally, Sumlin was on Purdue's staff when Brees was the starter there). Kevin Kolb, who played at Houston, would be another example, though he has a much stronger arm than Keenum. Other than those two, however, there are a handful of backups — Missouri's Chase Daniel (Saints) and Harrell to name a couple — who have stuck, but in general, spread quarterbacks either don't make it or don't last in the NFL.
But Sumlin believes there's a first time for everything and thinks Keenum's winning record, his accuracy and his moxie will be worth more than his size and arm strength.
"Case has won a lot of games," Sumlin said. "And even with the amount of balls that he has thrown, his touchdown-to-interception rate is exceptional and his completion rate is exceptional and that just tells you about his decision-making, skills and accuracy.
"Somebody's going to take him, and whoever takes him is going to be happy about it."