On Oct. 2, 2013, in the week leading up to a Friday night clash with in-state rival BYU, Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton talked about playing with his emotions in check. “It’s about knowing the right emotions at the right time,” Keeton told SI.com at the time, “and being able to have control of what you’re doing.”
Two days later something out of his control led to a season-ending knee injury.
Keeton scrambled midway through the first quarter, something he has done hundreds of times in the past. He twisted awkwardly when attempting to slip out of a tackle, and the result was a torn ACL and MCL. Less than six games into his junior year, Keeton was on the shelf, forced to watch from the sidelines as he set about relearning what made him such an electric player in the first place.
“For about a week [after the surgery] I couldn’t even get all the way around one cycle on the bike,” Keeton said over the weekend. “I’d just go halfway and kind of do pendulums. That was the beginning.”
The beginning led to walking, underwater exercises and lifting. Keeton steadily poured himself into his recovery. While he eyed a distant goal of working back into playing shape, his Aggies were aiming to win a Mountain West title without him.
Freshman quarterback Darell Garretson made his first career start against New Mexico on Oct. 19, helping Utah State to a 45-10 win. The Aggies proceeded to rattle off five consecutive victories to earn a place in the conference championship opposite star Derek Carr and Fresno State. Utah State ultimately lost 24-17, but rebounded to beat Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois 21-14 in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Keeton didn’t travel with the team for road games, instead focusing on watching film, rehabbing and lifting. He says the time away forced him to “think of football a lot more cerebrally.” To that end Utah State offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven notes that Keeton acted like a coach during Aggies’ home games, taking it upon himself to mentor Garretson.
“I understood what I meant to our program and to our offense,” Keeton said, “but whenever I got down about not being able to play anymore, I realized I could do the next best thing, which was play through someone else.”
The stats illustrate what a healthy Keeton means to Utah State. His career 66.5 percent completion percentage is the highest rate in school history. He set single-season program records for passing yards (3,373) and passing touchdowns (27) during his sophomore year in 2012, and likely would have blown past those numbers had he remained on the field for his full junior campaign.
Now, as he searches for a way to return to form, Keeton is reflecting on the soul-searching process that originally brought him to Logan, Utah.
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Keeton was initially committed to Air Force over Utah State, Memphis, UTEP and Nevada. He was a two-star recruit overshadowed by his own teammate at Cypress Creek (Texas) High, running back Jermichael Selders, who signed with Baylor.
“At the time I was thinking long term and I knew all the things that were involved with committing to Air Force,” Keeton said. “But the military thing turned me away from it a little bit. I didn’t necessarily want to do that with my life. I have a great deal of respect for what they do, but I didn’t think that was my calling.”
Keeton was on his official visit to Utah State when the team defeated BYU 31-16 on Oct. 1, 2010, the last time the Aggies knocked off the Cougars. He was hooked, verbally committing to the school less than three weeks later.
If he never played another down, Keeton would be remembered as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play for Utah State. But his ultimate goal was always to get back on the field, and Keeton did that by participating in non-contact drills this spring. He savored every juke and cut, constantly learning what his body could and could not handle. Summer went by without incident, and Keeton entered fall camp cleared, something that seemed inconceivable 10 months ago.
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“He came back really fast,” McGiven said. “He looked better in the first day and in his first couple practices than I thought he would physically. He’s still getting used to his brace and running around, but he’s really doing the same kinds of things he was doing before. We haven’t changed our approach with him at all.”
The Aggies have embraced Keeton’s leadership, and there’s no doubt his proclivity for extending plays and drives gives Utah State the best chance to navigate another tricky schedule. The Aggies open at Tennessee on Aug. 31 before making trips to Arkansas State and BYU by the first week of October.
“The way Utah State is, we don’t shy away from the big stage,” Keeton said. “I understand the amount of pressure [entering the Tennessee game] just because more than anything it’s the first game of the season.”
Since Utah State plays the Volunteers on a Sunday, Keeton will spend Saturday watching college football and studying the game, something he has done steadfastly throughout his entire career. Except now there is one small change.
“The thing now is I don’t worry about myself, but whenever I’m watching a football game on TV or in person I’m looking at hits and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty close to their ACL,’” Keeton said. "That’s from experiencing what I did. I realize that you definitely can never predict when it’s going to be your last play so you have to play everything like it is your last.”
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