Keenum out to shed ‘system QB’ label

Tony Dungy had heard the question about Houston’s Case Keenum.

But the former Super Bowl-winning coach also had seen Keenum play last season, when the quarterback burst onto the national scene by topping the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards, leading his team to a national ranking for the first time since 1991 and finishing eighth in voting for the Heisman Trophy.

For his encore, Keenum needs 4,123 yards to break the NCAA career-passing record of 17,072 yards held by former Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang. That should be easy with a trio of 1,000-yard wide receivers returning from the FBS’ top offense last season.

Such firepower and a favorable schedule has the Cougars being mentioned as a threat to crash the Bowl Championship Series.

And while the burning questions of whether Keenum’s success stems from playing in Houston’s pass-happy attack and if he can be a successful NFL quarterback remain for many, they don’t for Dungy.

As they ate lunch last week at ESPN headquarters, the quarterback’s confidence reminded Dungy of another quarterback, whom he met 10 years ago in a hotel lobby. Like Keenum — who is listed at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds — that player was said to be undersized, lacking arm strength, and the product of an offensive system that inflated his statistics. His name was Drew Brees.

After meeting the then-Purdue quarterback who would lead the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl title last season, Dungy remembered thinking, “Boy, that guy’s going to be something.” He had that same impression after meeting Keenum.

“He’s a good player,” Dungy said. “He’s going to be just fine.”

The comparison of Brees and Keenum also happens to have a connection: Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin. When Brees played at Purdue, Sumlin coached the team’s wide receivers.

“It’s a logical comparison because of their height, demeanor, play-making ability, numbers and things like that,” Sumlin said of Brees and Keenum. “It’s just natural.”

Last season, Keenum set a single-season team record for passing yards with 5,671 yards and finished with 44 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while leading the FBS in total offense. Not bad for a West Texas product whose only scholarship offer was from Houston, a program with a history of offensive fireworks that has produced quarterbacks Andre Ware (a Heisman Trophy winner) and David Klingler (a former NFL first-round pick).

“It’s always great to find a kid that has unbelievable talent on the field,” Tulsa Coach Todd Graham said of Keenum. “I really believe he’s their offensive coordinator. He is absolutely phenomenal in what he does and how he gets them into the plays. He is just like a machine. He can make every throw. What a tremendous player.”

Yet the stigma of being a "system quarterback" remains for Keenum. It’s become such a tiresome question that Sumlin rarely answers it anymore.

“If you don’t have a system, you don’t have an offense,” Sumlin said. “There’s always going to be detractors from anything. It’s not necessarily what the general public thinks that matters. It’s what the guys who coach think. All I know is that he’s extremely productive in our offense and wins a lot of games. Numbers are not on his mind or a concern.”

Keenum essentially ignores the system quarterback question, but he has his answers for it. He insists that he is “a system guy, and I’m in whatever system you want to put me in.”

“I can’t change who I am,” Keenum said. “I can’t change where I am or the type of offense we run or any of that stuff. What I can change is how people think of me by how I play, which is by winning football games.”

Lunch with Dungy with so thrilling for Keenum that he joked he “nearly peed his pants.” It was also reassuring for him when Dungy explained his method of scouting players for the NFL draft.

When Dungy started coaching in 1981, under then legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, he was told by him not to listen to other scouts and coaches. Instead, he was to meet players, find out their intricacies and watch tape of their games.

Dungy credits that philosophy for drafting productive, undersized, and high-character collegiate standouts like running back Warrick Dunn and defensive end Dwight Freeney, both of whom became Pro Bowlers, higher than other teams had them rated.

“Go out there and show people you can play, and don’t worry about trying to fit into any mold,” Dungy recalled telling Keenum.

Dungy said he evaluates quarterbacks on their decision-making, poise under pressure and accuracy. He cited Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Brees as quarterbacks with all three traits who were doubted by NFL standards. Dungy believes Keenum also has each of those three characteristics.

“That’s what being an NFL quarterback is all about,” Dungy said.

Even before Keenum’s national splash last season, Klinger mused that Keenum had more NFL potential than Philadelphia Eagles starting quarterback Kevin Kolb, a second-round pick out of Houston in 2007. Dungy also has heard such talk.

“A lot of people are saying that,” Dungy said.

Of course, Keenum didn’t help himself by closing last season with a career-high six interceptions in a dismal loss to Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. Up until then, he had never thrown that many interceptions in a video game, let alone more than three in a real game.

During the game, Keenum said he knew exactly how many interceptions he had thrown because Air Force defenders taunted him with the tally after each one.

“That’s definitely a position I never want to be in again,” Keenum said. “That’s motivation enough right there.”

So in the offseason, Keenum worked on adding lean muscle mass, gaining 12 pounds. He focused on his upper-body strength and participated in a flexibility program aimed at improving his arm strength.

Keenum also attended the Manning Passing Academy run by Peyton and Eli Manning. There, he and Peyton discussed the differences between watching game tape and studying it. Now, wide receiver James Cleveland, one of Keenum’s roommates, said it’s not unusual for Keenum to be at Houston’s football offices until 8 p.m. watching tape and writing down his observations.

“People say system quarterback this, system quarterback that, but there’s quarterbacks in this system that aren’t putting up numbers that he’s putting up,” Cleveland said. “I don’t understand it.”

But as successful as Keenum is as quarterback, his teammates and even opponents have more respect for him away from football. He is active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and often speaks at Texas events put on by the group.

“He is a better person off the field than he is on the field as a player, which is hard to believe, but it’s true,” Graham said. “He’s a young man of tremendous faith. He’s a guy that has a giving heart.”

That’s why Keenum said that no highlight or accolade this season will top working an FCA camp in College Station, Tex., this summer, where nearly 300 students committed their lives to Jesus Christ.

“That’s some eternal work there,” he said. “All these records and stuff will be gone one day, but that sort of stuff is going to be there forever.”

A devout Christian himself, Dungy said Keenum’s demeanor resonated with him.

“He’s going to continue to be the same person, whether he’s a redshirt quarterback, a Heisman Trophy candidate, the No. 1 draft choice or Pro Bowler,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to change. That’s special.”

Prior to last season, Brees and the Saints visited the Houston Texans for a week of practice. For one of the sessions, Sumlin took his team to watch. Afterward, Brees talked to Keenum.

“It was very, very beneficial to him,” Sumlin said.

Since then, Brees has answered those who’ve questioned whether he would ever be more than a statistical phenomenon. Now, it’s Keenum’s turn to do the same.