MAK­ING A CASE FOR KEENUM

Vik­ings quar­ter­back Case Keenum is mak­ing be­liev­ers out of ev­ery­one af­ter hav­ing been viewed sim­ply as a backup

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - SPORTS - By Dave Camp­bell

WMINNEAPOLIS >> hen Min­nesota’s offense hud­dled for the first time that mid-Septem­ber af­ter­noon in Pitts­burgh, Case Keenum’s en­ergy and con­fi­dence quickly filled the cir­cle.

The Vik­ings were forced to turn to their backup quar­ter­back to start the sec­ond game of the sea­son af­ter Sam Brad­ford’s knee acted up, an omi­nous de­vel­op­ment that can doom a team to an au­tumn of dis­en­chant­ment and play­ing for draft­pick po­si­tion.

De­spite the de­ci­sive de­feat against the Steel­ers that day, though, there was a cer­tain as­sur­ance Keenum gave his team­mates that sug­gested they’d be all right.

“He’s a guy you want to play for,” wide re­ceiver Adam Thie­len said.

Four months later, the Vik­ings and Keenum are still play­ing. They’re two wins away from reach­ing the Su­per Bowl.

“It’s been a blast, man. It’s been in­cred­i­ble. I’m sure one of these days I’ll be able to look back and re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it, but there’s so much to en­joy right now,” Keenum said. “Not re­ally putting too much into per­spec­tive. Not re­ally look­ing too much at the big pic­ture. I’m keep­ing my blin­ders on.”

With a mod­est 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame, Keenum was mostly ig­nored by ma­jor col­lege pro­grams de­spite lead­ing Abi­lene Wylie High School to its first state championship in foot­ball-ob­sessed Texas. Hous­ton made his only FBS scholarship of­fer, from then-head coach Art Briles, and by the time Keenum was fin­ished with the Cougars he was the NCAA’s all-time lead­ing passer with 19,217 yards and 155 touch­downs. Yet he still went un­drafted in 2012, need­ing the Hous­ton Tex­ans prac­tice squad to get his pro­fes­sional ca­reer off the ground.

Keenum started 10 games over the next two years be­fore be­ing traded to the

Rams in 2015, but they made Jared Goff the first pick in the 2016 draft so there was no fu­ture for Keenum there be­yond be­ing a vet­eran men­tor.

Even Vik­ings head coach Mike Zim­mer was among those who typecast Keenum as a just-in-case sec­ond-stringer. Zim­mer ac­knowl­edged re­cently he didn’t gain full con­fi­dence in Keenum un­til the 11th or 12th game of the sea­son and, when Teddy Bridge­wa­ter was cleared to play in mid-Novem­ber, Zim­mer never de­clared Keenum the starter for more than a week at a time.

“He just wanted a chance,” his fa­ther, Steve Keenum, said this week in a phone in­ter­view. “He’s got to have the knack. It’s just a God-given, in­nate thing that he’s max­i­mized by work­ing hard.”

As the old­est of his three chil­dren, Case made clear at an early age to Steve that he had the makeup to be an NFL quar­ter­back even if there was no way to pre­dict how the skill set would un­fold.

“He was com­pet­i­tive in ev­ery­thing. It could be a board game. It could be play­ing darts. It could be play­ing cards. It didn’t mat­ter. But if it had a ball, he wanted to do it,” said Steve, who was a high school and col­lege coach around Texas for 24 years, in­clud­ing 10 sea­sons as the head coach at his alma mater McMurry Univer­sity.

Good coach­ing, start­ing with dad’s tips in the fam­ily back­yards, was another suc­cess fac­tor.

When Briles left for Bay­lor, Kevin Sum­lin ar­rived at Hous­ton for Keenum’s sopho­more year. Dana Hol­gorsen, now the head coach at West Virginia, was the of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor and quar­ter­backs coach. Af­ter he departed, Kliff Kings­bury, cur­rently the head coach at Texas Tech, took charge of the quar­ter­backs.

“They had some speed, and the next thing you know they were throw­ing the ball all over the field,” said Steve, who at­tended all 57 of

Case’s games with the Cougars and has been to each game he’s played for the Vik­ings. “They had some re­ally tal­ented kids. Peo­ple talked about him be­ing a sys­tem guy, with short passes and a run af­ter the catch, but they didn’t see him play.”

Though Keenum had prior NFL ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing nine starts for the Los An­ge­les Rams in 2016, he was signed by the Vik­ings as a one-year stop­gap to be the guy in the ball cap pro­vid­ing side­line sup­port and give Bridge­wa­ter am­ple time to re­cover from his colossal knee in­jury. Brad­ford had just pro­duced an in­jury-free ca­reer-best per­for­mance in 2016, af­ter all, so the Vik­ings were bank­ing on him.

Over the past four months, though, they’ve been cash­ing in on Keenum, a div­i­dend that has paid out hand­somely for both par­ties.

“We’ve got a great group of guys here,” he said, “and I think we’re all ex­cited to be ex­tend­ing our sea­son.”

With of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Pat Shur­mur deftly adapt­ing the team’s scheme to use Keenum’s mo­bil­ity to bet­ter ad­van­tage and a sleeker of­fen­sive line mostly pro­tect­ing him well, the Vik­ings have leaped up the league rank­ings in ev­ery sig­nif­i­cant sta­tis­ti­cal cat­e­gory. Among them: 28th to ninth in scor­ing touch­downs on pos­ses­sions af­ter pass­ing the 20-yard line, and 19th to third in third-down con­ver­sions.

Keenum will start his first play­off game Sun­day against New Or­leans, with a rau­cous home crowd at U.S. Bank Sta­dium ready to cheer the next step to­ward the fran­chise’s elu­sive first championship.

“Our fans are awe­some,” Keenum said. “All my friends and fam­ily who have come up from Texas and my friends from other teams that come in, they’ll text me af­ter the games and they’ll be like, ‘Dude, that place is ridicu­lous.’ It re­ally is.”

He’s a guy you want to play for.” Adam Thie­len Vik­ings re­ceiver, on quar­ter­back Case Keenum

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

From the time he en­tered the hud­dle, Case Keenum (7) brought en­ergy and con­fi­dence to the Vik­ings

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