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Houston's Case Keenum returns with new outlook

The Cougars quarterback was billed as a Heisman candidate last season before injuring his knee against UCLA. Keenum, who was married in June, says his life is less about football.

August 29, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • Houston was 10-4 in 2009, including a victory over No. 5 Oklahoma State, with a healthy Case Keenum at quaterback, but finished 5-7 last season when he was injured.
Houston was 10-4 in 2009, including a victory over No. 5 Oklahoma State,… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Case Keenum is back. Yet, he's not.

Last year around this time, the University of Houston quarterback was jetting off to Connecticut for a series of ESPN shows previewing the college football season.

This year, Keenum is in a no-fly zone and the story is all local — two Keenums will wear Houston jerseys at games, Case and Kimberly, his wife of three months.

A year ago, Keenum was billed as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy and his team given an outside shot of breaking into a Bowl Championship Series game. This year, he is barely a blip on the radar — you can get 35-1 odds on his winning — and Houston is nowhere near the rankings heading into Saturday's opener against UCLA.

These changes came when Keenum broke the platinum rule for a quarterback: "Don't go after linebackers, at least not ones who are taken in the second round by the NFL," he said.

Keenum and the Cougars had their flight plans altered when UCLA's Akeem Ayers intercepted Keenum's pass on the goal line last September. One minute, Keenum was in the Heisman chase. The next, he was chasing Ayers, and tearing up his knee.

Everything seemed different from that moment. Keenum's football career was off to oblivion, the Cougars were tossed onto the non-BCS-team scrap heap, and ESPN moved on to the next feisty Heisman longshot — Hello, Kellen Moore, what's up at Boise State?

Now, channeling a little Nietzsche (Friedrich) and a little Nitschke (Ray), Keenum is ready for a do-over, though he is not the same person who was whisked away by ESPN.

"You go through a life-altering event like that, your perspective changes," said Keenum, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility in January.

"My life is less about football. That's hard for a player because of the amount of time we spend on the field, training and in the weight room. But it should be faith, family, football."

Even at third, football remains big. This is Texas, after all, and Keenum is said to be back to his carving-up-the-defense ways.

"When our compliance officer called to tell me he had been granted the sixth year, it took me four minutes to call Case," Houston Coach Kevin Sumlin said. "I had to take a deep breath. But as happy as I was, I wasn't nearly as happy as Case."

The news caused barely a ripple outside of Houston, though. Keenum had spent his 15 minutes.

Months earlier, he had been part of the ESPN junket, doing 13 television and radio shows in one day at the network's offices.

He was the trending outsider candidate, running a pass-happy offense similar to the one Houston's Andre Ware operated in 1989 when he won the Heisman.

The hype in Houston was enough to cause hyperventilation.

A Facebook page was created — "Case Keenum Heisman Frontrunner" — where one person posted the message, "John Heisman wants to win the Case Keenum Trophy." The school ramped up the publicity.

"That was fine with me," Keenum said. "Why not get the U-of-H name out there? It was fun. But what you do on the field should speak for itself."

Houston was 10-4 in 2009, including a victory over No. 5 Oklahoma State, and the Cougars came into the Rose Bowl last season ranked No. 23.

With Keenum out, it became a 5-7 season.

So, instead of spending the off-season on the banquet circuit, Keenum worked on getting his knee healthy, not knowing whether he'd get another shot at football.

"There are not a lot of people cheering from the stands on the road to recovery," Sumlin said. "It's usually you and your therapist, who you begin to hate after three weeks. It's painful and it's lonely, and it can create a lot of doubts."

Said Keenum: "When such a large part of your life is taken away in a second it not only changes what you do day to day, it changes how you think."

Keenum graduated and, in June, he married Kimberly, whom he had known since they were kids in Abilene. When ESPN didn't come calling this year, Keenum said he was happy to "stay home on the couch with my wife getting pampered."

Still, there are things he would like to accomplish.

Houston could do some more BCS door knocking. Keenum's 13,586 yards passing are tantalizingly close to the NCAA record of 17,072, set by Hawaii's Timmy Chang. His 107 touchdown passes are within Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell's record of 134.

And when the school trots out Ware's trophy, Keenum admitted, "I have my eye on it."

But the view is from a different vantage point.

The big news down in Houston this year?

"Kimberly gets to wear a jersey with the name 'Keenum' on the back," the Cougars quarterback said. "She's pretty excited about that."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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