LOGAN — Chuckie Keeton looked good at Utah State’s final scrimmage of fall camp Tuesday night at Romney Stadium.
The senior quarterback was extremely active and agile and displayed a wide array of moves, using both his arms and his legs to deliver play after play. The only problem for the Aggie fans in the stands was that you could see Keeton’s face.
Not that Keeton is unpleasant to look at, mind you. It’s just that they would prefer to see the visage of USU’s reigning Big Man on Campus and the most talked about person in Cache Valley obscured by an Aggie helmet and a facemask.
Seeing Keeton on the sideline using signals to call in plays while wearing headphones and a blue Aggie cap just brings back too many memories of last spring when the superstar QB was still rehabbing from the ACL and MCL surgery on his left knee that ended his 2013 season after just six games.
But Keeton, who was long ago anointed the starting quarterback by USU head coach Matt Wells, said he didn’t mind sitting out on Tuesday as the Aggie coaching staff focused on evaluating many of his teammates whose roles have yet to be determined.
“If anything, it gives me great happiness because I get to wear this hat,” Keeton said. “A lot of people don’t, and I know I’m in a great position.
“And I try not to look back too much at what happened. Instead I try and look forward to all the positives that are about to happen, and I look forward to leading these guys into a lot of battles this upcoming season.”
While signaling plays, Keeton stood alongside freshman Damion Hobbs, a top prospect out of Texas who has to sit out this season after transferring from Oregon. Hobbs might well be the future of the Aggie quarterback position, but during Tuesday’s scrimmage he helped deliver plays to four other QBs who are playing behind Keeton this season.
Freshman DJ Nelson, the younger brother of former Aggie and Cougar Riley Nelson, took a few snaps during fall camp after returning from an LDS mission, while fellow freshman Kent Myers has looked awfully athletic coming off an impressive high school career in Texas.
But should Keeton go down again this season, his official backup is sophomore Darell Garretson. Make that Darell Garretson with an asterisk.
“He’s the next best quarterback in the program,” USU head coach Matt Wells said of Garretson. “And I owe it to this program, I owe it to this university and, most importantly, I owe it to the locker room that if Chuckie’s not available to play in a legit situation to play the next best available quarterback.”
It was Garretson, of course, who played a pivotal role in helping Utah State turn a potential lost season into a 9-5 campaign that included a trip to the first-ever Mountain West Conference Championship game. After Keeton was injured in the first quarter of the BYU game on Oct. 4, junior Craig Harrison came in to replace him and ended up completing 18 of 41 passes for 185 yards in USU’s 31-14 loss. Harrison was then given the difficult task of starting the next week at Boise State, where he ended up being pulled after going 7 for 17 for 105 yards.
Garretson, whom the Aggies were planning to redshirt in 2013, came in and provided enough of a spark (9-of-14 for 116 yards and one touchdown) to prompt Wells to start the freshman the following week at New Mexico. A 45-10 Utah State rout helped kickstart a 6-1 run down the stretch that ended with a 21-14 victory over No. 24 Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl.
During the Aggies’ second-half run, Garretson completed 60.3 percent of his passes and set the school record for passing yards by a freshman with 1,446. Those numbers and USU’s record with Garretson at the helm of the offense certainly make him the obvious option if Keeton goes down again this year.
However, Wells has made it clear that, if possible, the Aggies would like to redshirt Garretson in 2014. That means that if USU needs a quarterback to take a few snaps at the end of a blowout, Harrison is likely to take the field. But if Keeton had to miss any significant time with an injury, chances are Garretson will be asked to take off his redshirt once again.
“He’s gained a little weight and strength,” Wells said of Garretson. “Just watching him, he doesn’t look like the young 18-year-old that we were trying to redshirt last year. He’s got some confidence, which he should.”
Coming out of fall camp, Keeton said he physically felt fine. But adding to USU’s worries are the fact that much of the Aggies’ offensive line is young and untested, and with four-year starter Tyler Larsen gone, the unit did suffer a few more miscues on center snaps than Wells would have liked.
“I think they’re just trying to get me to test my knee out a little bit more,” Keeton cracked.
In addition, thanks to a trip to Hawaii and a possible return to the Mountain West championship game, the Aggies could potentially play a school-record 15 games this year with just one bye week during the regular season.
“We’ve taken that into account with our summer training and adjusted a little bit,” Wells said. “We’ve also adjusted a little in training camp. We know that reps accumulate. It’s getting your guys to the fight and making sure they’re fresh, rested and well-trained. It’s a fine line, and it’s a combination of how physical and non-physical you can be. We’ve done a little bit of adjusting in anticipating a longer year with fewer breaks.”
As far as Keeton goes, Wells said his quarterback has essentially been on a “pitch count” since he got to USU, and that he was going to monitor the amount of throws the senior made during camp even closer this year — likely another reason Keeton was held out of Tuesday’s final scrimmage.
But when it comes to running with the football — something Keeton is known for as well as his passing abilities — Wells proclaimed, “Absolutely. Touchdown, first down, get down. I’m not going to put a harness on that guy.”
Although he missed much of last season, Keeton was still named the Mountain West Conference Preseason Offensive Player of the Year in July. But that will happen when you start (and almost win) your first college game at Auburn, and just continue to rack up stats, victories and accolades.
Heading into the 2014 campaign, Keeton ranks first in Utah State history in career completion percentage (.665), second in touchdown passes (56) and completions (517) and third in total offense (7,114 yards). The Houston native has also thrown just 13 interceptions in 777 career pass attempts.
“He does a really good job of processing information,” Wells said of Keeton. “From what he’s coached to do, to accepting a signal on the field, to play the plays, there’s a lot of processing going on, and it happens really fast. The guy has an unbelievable ability to retain knowledge, and it’s really cool to see.”
Wells said that his senior quarterback is so sharp that “it’s also a problem because you can’t be wrong. He’ll call me out.”
“He’s one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever coached,” Wells added. “Some kids want to learn what you’re coaching them to do, but to do it in a live game is another thing, and he can do both.”
Wells and Keeton have clearly been a good combination. A former Aggie quarterback himself, Wells returned to his alma mater in 2011 as the quarterbacks coach under then head coach Gary Andersen. He then served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the following season before replacing Andersen as the head coach in 2013 after Andersen took the head position at Wisconsin.
“He came to my house the second day he was on the job,” Keeton said of Wells. “So, I met him very early, and we’ve had our relationship kind of set from Day 2, I guess. And he’s tried to walk me through things every step of the way, while also making sure that I don’t get too big-headed.”
That wouldn’t be too hard to do. Heading into last season, the USU Athletic Media Relations Department started up a Chuckie for Heisman campaign — an effort that is still underway this year, although a little more quietly. Still, Keeton’s name has been thrown around a lot in the preseason as a “dark horse” Heisman candidate, and his return from knee surgery even got a mention in Sports Illustrated’s college football preview.
But he obviously can’t go anywhere in Cache Valley without being recognized and celebrated for his role in Utah State completely turning around its football program.
“Personally, I’m a low-key type of person,” Keeton said. “I don’t shy away from the spotlight, but I’m also not searching for it. I stay at home a good amount. But whenever people see me, I’m more than happy to say ‘Hi’ or sign an autograph or take a picture if they ask.
“But it’s more like whispers rather than full-out attacks, and I kind of appreciate that about the people in Logan.”
With school starting up next week, Keeton said he’s getting geared up for a whole new level of attention from his fellow students, “but it’s all part of the job I kind of signed up for.”
That “job” will take him to Knoxville on Aug. 31, when the Aggies open the 2014 season at Tennessee. It’s another opportunity for Keeton to knock off a big-time opponent on the road after coming painfully close again Auburn, Wisconsin and USC in his first three years, and you can bet that the senior quarterback will be soaking up every moment of the game at 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium. Not to mention every game he plays after that.
“That’s the way I’ve decided to live my life,” Keeton said. “Just live in the moment and don’t take things for granted because you never know what can happen. That’s kind of the great thing about football, and that one instance when it wasn’t a great thing. It’s allowed me to take advantage of everything, especially on the football field, and play as hard as I can every single play.”