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April 11, 2007
Make no mistake, only Nebraska football helmets will be worn on Sam Keller's head this year.
That means absolutely no lamp shades.
"I'm not a party guy," Keller said after a recent spring football practice. "I'm a football guy."
In Nebraska, where Memorial Stadium becomes the state's third most populated area on game days, football guy and party guy is often the same guy.
If Keller were a party guy, as some of his former Arizona State teammates reportedly suggested to then-Sun Devils coach Dirk Koetter a year ago, it would presumably be OK at Nebraska. The school once welcomed heavy metal drummer Tommy Lee to campus for a reality television show.
And he couldn't even throw touchdown passes.
Keller definitely can, and that's a major reason the Cornhuskers again appear to be the team to beat in the Big 12 North. His presence figures to ease the loss of Big 12 player of the year and all-conference quarterback Zac Taylor, who completed a lot of passes and his eligibility while leading the Huskers to a 9-5 record and North Division supremacy last season.
"It does help out a lot having a guy with game experience," Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "He's played big games against some of the top teams in the country. He faced LSU and USC and was successful and had great games. It helps to have a guy who has been in front of the lights and played in crunch time."
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Keller threw for 461 yards and four touchdowns against LSU, and 347 yards and two touchdowns (but with five interceptions) against USC in 2005. He passed for 2,165 yards and 20 touchdowns with nine interceptions in just eight games before a hand injury prematurely ended his season.
With Keller out of the lineup, Rudy Carpenter took over and led the Sun Devils to four victories in their last five games.
That set up a fierce offseason competition which Keller thought he won when he was named the starter a week before the season began. But Koetter, who reportedly was approached by some Arizona State players who put their support behind Carpenter, changed his mind two days later.
"They made a business decision and I have to respect that," Keller said. "I made the decision (to transfer) and I never looked back. I feel blessed that I ended up in a place like this. Everything happens for a reason."
Nebraska fans are hopeful the reason is that Keller is destined to throw scads of touchdown passes and lead the Cornhuskers to their first Big 12 championship since 1999, thus vaulting them back to national prominence.
There is undoubtedly great potential for touchdown passes. Nebraska returns its top three receivers and four starting offensive linemen.
"We've got some real horses out here," Keller said. "It's a neat thing to step in here and have those guys. They're talented and fast, and the depth is incredible. I feel like I can go anywhere with the ball, and that's a good feeling."
But even if Nebraska equals its 32 touchdown passes of a year ago, there is no guarantee Keller will be throwing most of them.
Once again he's in a competition for the starting quarterback job, this time with Joe Ganz. The junior QB has been in the Nebraska program since 2004.
But Keller impressed his teammates quickly.
"Joey is a product of the system and he goes through his progressions," senior linebacker Corey McKeon said earlier in spring practice. "Sam knows how to attack people and he has that experience. He will be looking for Maurice Purify every play. When he sees (cornerback) Cortney Grixby guarding Maurice Purify he knows where to put the ball to get a big play and he knows how to attack people. He knows when he's running a quick three-step drop slant play to look for Terrence Nunn or Nate Swift ? two guys that can beat people with speed. He knows how to use his weapons.
"That's something Joe hasn't been able to do yet because he hasn't been on the field much. It's hard to choose between that because you've got a guy that knows how to take advantage of a defense and you've got a guy that knows how to read a defense."
Keller has thrown four touchdowns passes in a game four times. Ganz has thrown three in his collegiate career. Therefore, most observers feel Keller will emerge as the starter - although Watson said that won't be decided until August.
However, he praised Keller's competitive drive, maturity and willingness to accept instruction this spring.
"It's the first time he's actually been asked to operate and manage the offense," Watson said. "I think initially he was anxious, but he settled down and I saw a big breakthrough in his fourth practice. He managed us really well. I see him getting comfortable with the offense. He's locked in a pretty fierce competition and it should be interesting."
Ganz's experience in the program does give him a bit of an edge.
"Joey believes in what he can do and he has knowledge of the offense because he's been in it for four years," Watson said. "He knows what he's doing, he knows what we expect and he makes very few mistakes."
That puts him one step ahead of Keller, who made one significant mistake this spring when he was charged with disturbing the peace, a Class III misdemeanor, for shouting and throwing a plastic cup at a female student who took a parking spot he was waiting for in a campus parking garage.
Keller later apologized.
Cornhuskers fans will forgive him, especially if he can make as much news with his throws in the fall.
"The sky is the limit here," Keller said. "The standard at Nebraska is the national championship, so we're going to shoot for the stars. We have a lot of experienced players, so we're shooting high day-by-day."
If that happened it wouldn't matter what Keller wore on his head. Nebraska fans would only see a halo.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.