Coach Art Briles has an eye for talent. You don’t win four state high school championships without knowing how to spot a top-notch football player where others see just another kid. Following his first season as a college head coach at the University of Houston, Briles had his eye on the future. He had a star quarterback in Kevin Kolb who would guide his team through the next three seasons, but he also needed a successor.
At a football camp that summer, Briles watched a determined West Texas kid who had just finished his sophomore year of high school run through each drill with precision and poise. The kid didn’t fit the template that college scouts look for: He was too short at 6-foot-1, didn’t have a powerful arm, and wasn’t fast enough to outrun defenders. But Briles, a veteran of the Texas coaching network, knew both the young man’s dad and his high school coach and knew he was looking at a future college quarterback—someone who remains calm in tight situations, makes good decisions under pressure, and makes the players around him better. When the camp was over, Briles offered 16-year-old Case Keenum a scholarship to play for the Cougars.
“The thing that impressed me about him was that I knew he was a winner,” Briles said. “I knew he had great instincts. I knew his character. He was just a guy that had a lot of poise and a lot of natural leadership ability.”
The season after Briles made the scholarship offer, Keenum led Abilene’s Wylie High School to a state championship. And though Briles has since left UH to coach at Baylor, his prescience has paid off for the Cougars. Keenum, now in his junior season, has led Houston to a 10-2 record and a spot in the Conference USA championship game this weekend.
Along the way, he’s put up eye-popping statistics, engineered heart-stopping comeback wins, and put himself in contention for college football’s top individual honor, the Heisman Trophy. Not bad for an unheralded quarterback that few teams wanted.
Keenum leads the nation in passing attempts, completions, and yardage, and he’s tied for the NCAA lead with 38 touchdown passes. In some of those categories, the numbers aren’t even close: He has 412 pass completions, while no one else has more than 400. And his total of 4,922 passing yards is more than 1,000 ahead of his closest competitor. He’s thrown for more than 300 yards in all but one game this season. He’s gone over 400 yards six times and topped 500 yards passing in three games.
It’s not just showy individual numbers either. Keenum and his teammates have been ranked in the Top 25 for all but two weeks this season, climbing as high as No. 12. Along the way they’ve downed Oklahoma State and Texas Tech from the Big 12 and Mississippi State from the SEC, and pulled off some thrilling comebacks: Scoring nine points in the final 21 seconds to beat Tulsa, just a week after scoring with 21 seconds left in the game to defeat Southern Mississippi.
A pair of losses to average teams (UTEP and Central Florida) has kept the Cougars from an even better year. Still, there’s the conference championship game against East Carolina on Saturday and an eventual bowl appearance, giving Houston a chance for the most wins in a single season since they went 11-1 in 1979 under celebrated coach Bill Yeoman.
Then there are the inevitable postseason awards, which Keenum modestly downplays. He’s been named as a finalist for the Walter Camp Award, presented to the nation’s top player, and for both the Manning Award and the Davey O’Brien Award, which go to the nation’s top quarterback. Beyond the on-field successes, there’s another thread that connects Keenum to his two fellow O’Brien finalists, Texas’s Colt McCoy and Florida’s Tim Tebow. All are active in their churches and are highly visible in their faith. Keenum began writing biblical verses on his eye black after seeing Tebow do the same, and Keenum shared the stage with McCoy at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event this summer in San Angelo.
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence that there are three strong believers that are going to be there,” Keenum said. “Especially at the quarterback position, it’s an important thing to have is your teammates’ respect and trust. When you’re a guy somebody can trust and believe in, I think that says a lot about you as a person.”
But what about the Heisman, college football’s biggest award? Although quarterbacks have won the award eight of the last nine times, those players have come from big conferences like the SEC, Big 12, and Pac-10. Playing in Conference USA doesn’t provide the kind of national media exposure that benefits those teams. So if winning the Heisman seems like a long shot, will double-digit victories and the nation’s top passing numbers be enough to get Keenum named as one of the finalists? The field, expected to be between three to five players, will be announced December 7. McCoy and Tebow appear to have two of the finalist spots locked up, with the remaining ones to be decided among Keenum and running backs Mark Ingram of Alabama and Toby Gerhart of Stanford.
Former UH quarterback David Klingler believes Keenum deserves to be included in the Heisman ceremony, but, having been through a similar situation himself back in 1990, is skeptical of Keenum’s chances.
“This goes back to an old discussion. I was asked about this when I was playing. If going to the Heisman deal means you go out there and have to play by certain rules or be politically correct or something, well then, I’m not interested,” said Klingler, who held the school record for career touchdown passes before Keenum broke it this season. “Should he be there? Absolutely. His numbers speak for themselves. He should be there. But the reality is that the way the system is set up now, the bowl conferences will have guys that go and the rest of them sit out in the cold.”
Even if those individual accolades never come, Keenum could have something more lucrative in his future. Klingler, a former first-round pick NFL draft pick, believes Keenum has the skills for a successful pro career should he be matched with the right team. That probably wouldn’t surprise Briles, who knew he had spotted something special at that football camp years ago.
“He’s certainly lived up to all of his expectations, without a doubt,” Briles said. “But I don’t think that he’s exceeded any, because I always thought he was one of those guys that was going to be a really talented football player.”