Utah State football: Chuckie's back, and Mountain West notices
Las Vegas • He was tabbed the Mountain West conference preseason offensive player of the year, his image and "Chuckie4 Heisman" is emblazoned on Utah State's new notebooks and his spot at the MWC Media Day here in Las Vegas was one of the most crowded of all the coaches' and players'.
Through it all, Chuckie Keeton, Utah State's highlight-making quarterback, smiled and basked in the attention and even maintained his sense of humor.
"I'm going to pass out all those notebooks at camp and tell everyone they have to take their notes in it," he said of the ones bearing his image.
Apparently being in the center of the media spotlight with a season's worth of expectations on his shoulders isn't considered pressure for the senior.
For Keeton, it's a welcome change after spending the second half of the 2013 campaign banished to rehab following his season-ending knee injury against BYU.
"I feel like I am starting fresh," he said. "There is no such thing as rollover stats so you just have to keep going and I want to bring new life to the offense this year."
Many others obviously expect he will do that. Keeton's return to the field is one of the reasons the Aggies were picked to be a contender for the Mountain division in the media poll, finishing second behind Boise State.
While acknowledging Keeton could be facing a lot of pressure, USU coach Matt Wells expressed as much interest in protecting Keeton from the high expectations as he did from the opposing defenses he'll face in the coming months which is to say the quarterback will be pretty much on his own.
"He can handle it," Wells said, speaking of both the pressure and the defensive efforts from opponents. "He is as tough-minded individual as I have known. He wouldn't have been able to go into Auburn, Alabama as an 18-year-old and handle that situation without being a tough-minded, passionate and self motivated individual."
Keeton, who ran for two touchdowns in that 42-38 loss to the Tigers, is expected to be full strength when the Aggies open camp Aug. 5.
Normally when players return from such an extensive injury there is an anticipation he won't be at the same level as he was before the injury. However, that philosophy doesn't seem to fit Keeton's situation.
Wells said Keeton rehabbed as tough as he played and pushed running back Joe Hill, who was out with a knee injury as well, to rehab hard too.
"What impressed me was that leadership," Wells said. "I knew he was going to take things to another level and he did. He was in every quarterback meeting, at every practice, in Darell Garretson's ear playing good cop and bad cop, he was everywhere. His leadership was there."
It was obvious from the way others spoke of him Keeton not only has the respect of his team, but his opponents too. Coaches during the media day spoke glowingly of the senior and predicted a big year for him.
"I wrote him a note after he got hurt and asked him to take it easy on us next year," New Mexico coach Bob Davie said. "I hate the fact we have to go up there and play him, but I am happy for him and our conference he gets to show what he can do. He is a dynamic guy who puts on a show."
Keeton said his left knee is almost at full strength, to the point he doesn't even feel much of a difference between the two.
"I've run into a lot of stuff at home," he joked. "I'm not feeling any pain and my left knee feels like my right one. That is something I couldn't say a few months ago."
As much focus as there has been on his knee, Keeton is a dangerous quarterback because he is the complete package, Wells noted.
"The injury didn't hurt his mind or his arm," Wells said. "His arm is a weapon and his mind is a tremendous weapon. God gave him the ability and talent to be a good quarterback, but what he has is the mindset and makeup to be the college football quarterback."
There won't be any thoughts of protecting the quarterback anymore than normal, Wells said. If anything, it will be on Keeton to help a new offensive line mature. If that means exposing the quarterback to a few more hits in the process, well then bring it on, said both Wells and Keeton.
Keeton has spent enough time on the sidelines, he is ready to play and play hard.
"We are going to have four new offensive linemen and I want to build up their confidence," Keeton said. "I want them to know that if something happens I am there to cover for them.
"Being injured wasn't a lot of fun and I'm too competitive to not do anything," he added. "It had to go somewhere so I hit the books, weight room and rehab and it helped me grow as a quarterback."
As for all the images and preseason hype, Keeton is enjoying the attention.
"It's still Utah State on our jerseys," he said. "It's not about one guy."
Mountain West poll
1. Boise State (20) 183
2. Utah State (12) 176
3. CSU (1) 135
4. Wyoming 90
5. New Mexico 56
6. Air Force 53
1. Fresno State (15) 174
2. San Diego State (15) 172
3. Nevada (3) 130
4. UNLV 95
5. San Jose State 87
6. Hawaii 35