February 17, 2009

Keith has high ceiling

Kent State got a cherry on top of its 2009 recruiting class last weekend when Spencer Keith signed with the Golden Flashes, a surprise that most didn't see coming.

Keith, a 6-foot-2, 182-pounder, comes to Northeast Ohio from Little Rock, Ark., where he shattered virtually every passing record in the state and put together a remarkable 5,308-yard passing performance in 2008. The dynamic dual-threat signal caller capped off his stellar career by leading Pulaski Academy to the Arkansas 5A state title.

Keith completed 396 of 625 pass attempts his senior year (63-percent) and threw an astonishing 70 touchdown passes. However, it wasn't the first season Keith put up gaudy numbers. As a junior in 2007, he passed for 4,768 yards and 51 touchdowns. Keith also showed off his dual-threat capabilities, rushing for over 500 yards and 11 touchdowns the past two seasons combined.

Here's a look at Keith's strengths and weaknesses:

Strengths: Smart, heady kid…Accurate passer that can fit the ball into tight spaces…Will find ways to avoid the pass rush…Adept at throwing on the run…Can make plays with his legs on either rollouts or designed running plays…Certainly has the requisite experience…Can improvise and make something out of nothing….Makes some very tough throws look easy...Good arm strength and can make a variety of throws….Is a winner.

Question Marks: Doesn't have prototypical size…Not much (if any) experience playing in a traditional set…Almost always in the shotgun…Will get happy feet in the pocket and end up throwing off-balance or off one leg…How good was the competition he faced?

At first glance, Keith looks like a steal for Kent State. Here's a kid that threw for more than 10,000 yards and 121 touchdowns during his high school career. For most high school quarterbacks, it would take a decade to reach those numbers!

Being an analyst that only focuses on Ohio prospects, I obviously didn't have the chance to see Keith in live game action or a combine/camp setting, nor do I have a good feel for the level of play down in Arkansas. As a result, I can't exactly call myself an expert on Spencer Keith or Arkansas high school football.

The first thing that popped in my mind was "why does this kid have no star ranking and why did he not have a bunch of offers?" In other words, what does everybody else know that I don't?

My guess is that Keith was labeled as a product of the system; a guy who put up insane statistics simply due to the offense he was running. Pulaski Academy literally threw the ball 90-percent of the time and never punted the entire year. As a result, Keith was the focal point of the offense and was asked to throw the ball about 45-50 times per game on average. When a quarterback has the ball in his hands that much, it's not surprising he put up numbers rarely seen.

However, when taking a closer look it is obvious Keith is a special talent that supersedes the pass-happy offense he led. His highlight footage shows a player who understands the game, makes reads, can fit the ball into tight spots, and improvise when necessary. Those are skills that coaches want to see out of quarterback prospects, regardless of if he throws the ball 15 times or 50 times a game.

In Ohio, there have been a number of quarterbacks in recent years that fit into the same mold as Keith. That is, guys who put up huge numbers yet weren't high-profile recruits due to being labeled "system quarterbacks." Some of them come to mind are Kenton's Ben Mauk (Wake Forest/Cincinnati), Ada's Zac Dysert (Miami-OH), and Sherwood Fairview's Ryan Radcliffe (Central Michigan). Mauk currently is in the Canadian Football League while Dysert and Radcliffe's college careers haven't yet taken off. None of the aforementioned names were blue-chip prospects but impressed enough to have a few MAC/Conference USA teams take a shot.

Like Dysert and Radcliffe, I wouldn't be surprised if Keith will need a year or two in a college system to flush out the gunslinger mentality and bad habits he may have picked up in a wide-open offense before ever making an impact at the collegiate level. Kent State likely will have to do work with Keith on taking traditional 3-, 5- and 7-step drops from under center as he played in a shotgun-only offense at Pulaski. He will need to learn how to run traditional play-action and hit running backs and tight ends in the passing game. He will have to make the adjustment from always having five wide receivers at his disposal to just two to three receivers on a given play.

The good news is that it shouldn't take him long to pick up on these new concepts, as Keith is obviously a very smart young man. He boasts a 4.43 grade point and scored a very impressive 29 on his ACT. So it is apparent he has a very good head on his shoulders.

I also believe Keith will have to bulk up a bit. At around 180 to 185 pounds right now, he is thin and might not be ready to handle the physical pressures of playing quarterback at the college level. Putting on some upper body muscle will help him and likely improve his arm strength as well.

A redshirt might be the perfect elixir for Keith. A year in the weight room and some time working with the college coaching staff should allow him to make the transition from high school gunslinger to college-ready quarterback. He has the skills and smarts to do it; it will just take some time to groom him.

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