Keith Pough could go down as the best linebacker in Howard’s history. He could win as many as six major awards in his senior season, break multiple Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) records and be competing for an NFL roster spot this time next year. But you wouldn’t know any of that by talking to him.
The 6-foot-3, 236-pound Pough is as humble off the field as he is a wrecking ball on it. His conversations about football revolve around his parents, coaches, teammates or God and end with a polite “Yes, sir.” The team-high 120 tackles that he recorded last season are a blessing, as is just about everything else. Pough is the type that doesn’t take anything for granted.
A self-described “late bloomer,” the Orangeburg, S.C., native was a 5-foot-8 wide receiver in his first two years of high school. Pough didn’t start playing linebacker until his junior year and was overlooked by college scouts, so he and his “Pops” sent highlight tapes to every team on the East Coast.
Despite offers to walk on at numerous Division I schools, he landed at Howard because it was a good fit academically.
“The NFL was far-fetched for me at the time, because I didn’t really have I guess you would say the exposure,” Pough said. “I didn’t know if I really had a realistic shot of making it to the NFL, so I really was focused on academics and receiving that degree.”
The very thing that brought Pough to Howard caused him to miss his first year. His high school grade-point average was just .08 short of the school’s requirement, and he was forced to redshirt his freshman season.
He thought the problem had been cleared up by the second game of the season against Hampton, when he was mistakenly cleared and told he would start. It wasn’t until Pough was dressed and warming up on the field that the mistake was caught.
Second-year coach Gary Harrell first met Pough a few years later, when he was the offensive coordinator at Bowie State. He said he was most impressed not by Pough’s speed or athleticism, but by his leadership. Pough is the guy who “walks the talk.” When he speaks, the team listens.
“I just knew if I ever got the chance to be the head coach of this football team that I would be lucky to have someone of that magnitude on my team as my leader,” Harrell said. “He’s the guy that you put out [in] front of the team and they’ll follow him.”
Pough is a football player but also a student of the game. As the son of a high school coach, he literally grew up around the sport. Coaches say he spends more time dissecting film than anyone besides the quarterbacks.
Those film sessions pay off in the form of tackles for loss. Pough has an uncanny ability to identify plays as they develop, dance around blockers and slip into the backfield. He has 62.5 tackles for loss in his career, including 13.5 sacks, and is just six shy of setting an FCS career record.
“He’s a finesse player,” defensive coordinator Ray Petty explained. “When it’s time to get really physical, just to show you the situation, he’ll become real physical. But for the most part, he makes his big plays just on his athletic ability, being able to get up and around blocks as well as just being an intelligent football player.”
Pough maintains that he is solely focused on the upcoming season. He concentrates not on individual records or milestones but team goals, like finishing with the top-ranked defense in the country and winning a conference championship.
He would be lying, however, if he said the NFL hasn’t crossed his mind. Friends and family members ask Pough where he would most like to play. His answer is simple: anywhere and everywhere.
“I don’t care where I go. I don’t care if I get drafted or in free agency, I don’t care what team I play for — I’ll go play butt naked in Green Bay in February, you know, just for an opportunity,” he said. “And that’s really what it comes down to. I’m so passionate about the game, it doesn’t matter who I play for. I’m just gonna be the best linebacker, teammate, special teamer on that team.”