Chuckie Keeton was putting a wrap on spring break activities at beaches south of his Houston home the other day in the run-up to the start of Utah State spring football this week. Looking back and forward, the pre-eminent college quarterback in the state had one major assessment regarding the Aggies:
The coast is clear.
“Even though we had a good season last year,” he said, “next season can be even better.”
Keeton said not even the players initially grasped what was happening in Logan during his already glorious two years at USU, an unprecedented span during which his team went to two bowl games and came within a missed field goal of going to a BCS bowl last season.
“We were excited for a lot of things,” he said. “But we didn’t understand the potential we had. We grew into a mindset that we can be an elite team. We showed that this past year. But we could have done more, can do more — put in more — this year. If we take the right steps, this can be an even better season. The sky’s the limit.”
If anybody else dropped that line, we all might laugh, despite an 11-2 season last time around and the return of 15 starters. There are uncertainties after the loss of coach Gary Andersen and some key players. But when Keeton says the limit is high as the sky, there’s only one thing to do: bob your head up and down and say, yeah, the man knows what he’s talking about. Not only does he have the track record, he has the leadership, the presence to pull it off. Those words come out of his mouth as a matter of fact, not as insecure chest-thumping.
Here’s the remarkable thing, though. Keeton still is only 19 years old. He’s rearranged the fortunes of an entire football program, with some help from his friends, and he doesn’t turn 20 until June. Last year, he broke single-season records at Utah State for total yards (3,992), touchdown passes (27), passing yards (3,373), completion percentage (67.6) and completed passes (275). He also was the team’s second-leading rusher, having gained 619 yards and scored eight TDs on 129 carries.
His response to all that?
I can do better. I expect to do better. I have to do better.
There’s no question Keeton is the big dog in Logan. Everybody knows him, knows who he is and what he’s done on the field, what he’s done for the university. While that sort of attention and recognition could destabilize an immature mind, in Keeton’s, it’s merely a side effect to be managed properly. Handling the responsibility of leading his teammates is part of his job.
“It’s definitely been a unique experience,” he said. “I can’t be surprised or disappointed by what’s been bestowed upon me. I’m happy to be one of the leaders on this team. I have great guys around me. Everyone does his role without hesitation. [The public attention] is something I’ve downplayed because of the way my parents raised me. My family is quick to let me know I’m the same person I was before.”
He’s not, however, the same player.
Keeton cringes when he reflects on his past performances, when he watches film of last season’s games: “My freshman year, I was trying not to fail,” he said. “Last year, I was looking for success. I took more chances, but I also made a lot of dumb mistakes.”
In the offseason, he’s examined himself from head to toe. He’s worked on the mental aspects of playing quarterback and on his footwork. He wants to get the ball out quicker, tighten up his delivery, and a big part of that stems from working his feet properly.
“Some of the timing, especially on the deeper routes, can improve,” he said. “If I’m late, the ball can be tipped or intercepted. Footwork doesn’t seem like a big thing, but it has a big effect. It’s more complex than people know.”
The offseason also has given Keeton a chance to rehab and recover from the dings and dents of the past year. He lost five pounds during last season and now is rebuilding his body by lifting and scarfing heavy loads of caloric intake. Eating, he said, is his “hobby.” He consumes something every 30 minutes, even after large meals. His preferred dishes: a few chicken breasts, rice, salsa, spinach and sushi. One of his favorite foods is octopus.
He said the past few months have given him a chance to reflect on the accomplishments of last season, but that reflection kicks him back to the next thing, his own improvement: “Mistakes stay with me, but I know I can’t worry about it too much. I can get better. I’m looking forward to getting back out there in spring ball.”
Keeton said the team is eager to embrace the new coaching staff, and that although some things will be different, the important parts will flow naturally from and to the coaches and players in the fold.
“Now,” he said, “it’s about everybody here.”
Everybody there is pumped about competing in the Mountain West after going undefeated in the WAC last season. It’s a challenge that has caught the attention of and switched on the players as they convene for the opening of spring practices Tuesday.
“Spring ball is a grind,” Keeton said. “You have to work for something out in the distance. But that’s football. It’s what we all signed up for. You can tell who’s willing to step up. It shows the potential for how good the team will be. … It’s an exciting thing to think about.”
The sky — and its expansive limits.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Spencer Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.