After Transferring, Keller Wants to Be Big Red's No. 1

Sam Keller
Sam Keller has only one year of eligibility remaining but is confident he will get a fair chance at starting this year. (Dave Weaver - AP)
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

As he enters the final season of his collegiate football career, Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller finds his current situation very similar to the one he was in near the end of last summer: in a competition for the starter's job.

This time he is competing with junior Joe Ganz.

"We have two able-bodied guys who can get the job done," Keller said.

But the last thing Keller wants is a repeat of the way things unfolded last summer, when he was in the hunt for the starting job at Arizona State.

The race was down to Keller and then-sophomore Rudy Carpenter. Keller had completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,165 yards through the first seven games in 2005 before he injured his thumb and missed the rest of the season. Carpenter stepped in to lead the nation in passing efficiency (68 percent) and threw for 2,273 yards.

So when then-Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter made what he said was his final decision -- Keller would be the starter -- it was easy for him to say this: "We couldn't go wrong. I told you guys that all along. We couldn't make a bad decision."

As it turned out, he could go wrong, and he could make a bad decision. The day after he gave Keller the job, Koetter changed his mind and named Carpenter the starter. Less than a week later, Keller transferred. Koetter was fired at the end of the year.

"Some players were involved [at Arizona State] that backed Rudy, but it was a business decision," Keller said. Carpenter "had three years left to play, and I only had one. I was in the dark."

Keller still has only a year of eligibility remaining, and he still is fighting a younger player for the starting job.

"I'm no stranger to this; it's just something that comes with the quarterback position," he said. "But you can't lose when you become a Husker, and it feels good to be able to say that."

Challenging Keller this year is Ganz, who has three years of experience in Nebraska Coach Bill Callahan's West Coast offense. Ganz said he believes his knowledge of the playbook will be a big advantage but understands it does not guarantee him anything.

"There's always going to be competition at quarterback, and it's not in my nature to shy away from it," he said. "It's going to be a tough battle."

So tough that Callahan repeatedly has said he will not name a starter until the week before the season opener Sept. 1 against Nevada. Though Callahan declined to compare the two quarterbacks, Ganz did not mind at all. The junior said he is faster, more able to make something happen with his feet if a play breaks down. Keller, according to Ganz, is bigger and a more traditional pocket passer.

Also in the mix is sophomore Zac Lee, who transferred to Nebraska mid-year after playing the 2006 season at San Francisco City College. During spring practices, Lee was hobbled by a knee injury that he suffered in his final junior college game, but he has been cleared for full contact work.

Callahan did allow the crux of what eventually will separate the starter from the backup.

"We're looking for someone who can manage the system and maintain the profile of a great decision-maker," he said. "We want a leader who can put the team on his back and carry it."

Last season, those tasks fell to Zac Taylor, who led the Cornhuskers to a 9-5 record, a Big 12 North title and an invitation to the Cotton Bowl. But Taylor could not produce the one thing Callahan, in his fourth year at the helm, might need most: a signature win over a top 10 team. The Cornhuskers were 0-4 against such opponents in 2006.

Ganz said he and Keller are confident the starting nod will go toward them, which he believes raises the team's level of play. Keller could not agree more.

"I plan on playing, and I plan on leading this team to where it wants to go," Keller said. "I'm not going anywhere."

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