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Inside Case Keenum's new NFL life: College QBs he outplayed get gift-wrapped jobs as UH star fights

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Case Keenum Texans throwing
Case Keenum is finding the NFL to be a whole other world. Thousands of people in the stands for practice included. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CultureMapSNAP.com
Case Keenum Texans close up
Now, Case Keenum has coaches over his shoulder, watching his every move, dissecting if he's NFL ready. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CultureMapSNAP.com
Case Keenum Texans no helmet
Currently fourth on the quarterback depth chart, Case Keenum finds himself taking a lot of mental reps at Houston Texans practices. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CultureMapSNAP.com
Gary Kubiak Cal McNair Texans
Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak (shown here talking with Cal McNair at training camp) likes Case Keenum. But that doesn't guarantee the University of Houston quarterback a job. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CultureMapSNAP.com
Case Keenum Texans throwing
Case Keenum Kimberly Keenum
Case Keenum Texans close up
Case Keenum Texans no helmet
Gary Kubiak Cal McNair Texans
News_Chris Baldwin_managing editor_arms crossed

It may be the most famous garage apartment in the history of college football — written about in the New York Times, featured in a full segment on ABC Sports. Case Keenum and his wife Kimberly called it The Half because it wasn't even big enough to get its own mailing address.

The Half became part of the legend of Case Keenum, the modest living arrangements serving as a feel-good backdrop to the quarterback's record-shattering run at the University of Houston.

It is someone else's now though. The Keenums have moved out of The Half and right into a place on Kirby Drive, one of the significant markers of Keenum's much-watched attempt to transition into the NFL.

"We have a lot more room now," Keenum laughs about his new place. "It's nice."

But even as Keenum's abode has expanded, his role on the football field has shrunk.

"In my position, you have to take mental reps too," Keenum says. "You have to make every rep, your rep."

The NCAA's all-time leader in passing yards — the player who ESPN analyst Jon Gruden joked has "probably thrown more passes than any quarterback I've ever seen" — must almost get by on scraps in the Houston Texans' training camp.

Keenum may be fighting to be the third quarterback in Houston behind Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates, the set one and two, but he's clearly fourth right now, behind the NFL-experienced John Beck as well. In the Texans' first practice in pads Monday morning, Beck received more snaps than Keenum, especially in the crucial offense vs. defense drills.

"I'm in a position where I have to put everything I've got into every chance I get," Keenum says. "I have to get the maximum out of every opportunity."

Keenum is not complaining. He knows this is the life of an undrafted NFL free agent, a status that trumps all those touchdowns he threw for the Cougars. He knows that few expect him to make it big in the NFL — and that many project his ceiling for this year as making the Texans' practice squad.

He's remarkably unbitter about the whole thing. Over two conversations with CultureMap this summer, in both OTAs and now training camp, Keenum has not come close to lashing out at an NFL establishment that's largely tried to dismiss him. 

It doesn't seem to faze Keenum that quarterbacks he far outplayed in college (Ryan Tannehill, the Miami Dolphins' anointed new savior comes to mind) are getting gift-wrapped chances and multi-million dollar contracts while he fights for every rep.

He'll just put his head down — and go to work. Like he always has.

"In my position, you have to take mental reps too," Keenum says. "You have to make every rep, your rep."

So when Schaub, Yates or Beck go back to pass, Keenum is surveying the defense too, trying to make his own reads even if the football is not in his hands.

If you want to shoot down the doubters, you need to be innovative. While Keenum says part of his move to Kirby is getting into a place where he feels comfortable leaving Kimberly alone at home during the day (The Half wasn't in the best neighborhood by UH), another part is being as close to his new office as possible.

He's starting over without the slightest guarantee, just like he did at UH, where no one expected him to become one of the biggest stars in the college game.

Keenum will spend as much time with Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison — a no-question QB guru after his work with Yates last season in the midst of a quarterback apocalypse — as possible. He'll watch as much tape of the practice reps he does get as possible. He'll pick Schaub's brain as much as possible.

"You have to try and get better every day in the NFL," Keenum says. "That's one thing that's struck me about Matt. He's trying to get better every single day out here. He talks about that a lot. And you can see it."

When you keep yourself busy, the doubters have a harder time barging into your thoughts as well. Keenum swears he isn't motivated by proving those who think he's too small (6-foot), too weak armed and too much of a product of Kevin Sumlin's system at UH to make it in the NFL wrong.

"To me it's more about proving the people who have believed in me, right," Keenum says.

That includes his wife, who found herself watching Keenum in a practice for the first time ever on Monday. It's a whole new world in the NFL, where more than 5,000 fans turn out to watch the Texans in every sold-out open practice.

So Kimberly Keenum is there too, with her white sticker nametag like everyone else with VIP access. The pretty brunette who became such a focus of the ABC cameras during that Conference USA Championship Game doesn't have to worry about obsessive attention now.

Case Keenum stops by the sidelines to talk with his wife and several of their friends after practice. It's a short drive from Robertson Stadium to the Reliant complex, but in many ways, it might as well be a different state.

"I've never had that many people watch a practice I was in," Keenum says. "It's something else."

It certainly is. At the University of Houston, Sumlin might have thought twice about letting his own mother into a practice.

Adjusting

Keenum knows about life in the spotlight of course. He became an ambassador for UH the likes of which the school's never seen before in his six years on campus. University of Houston president Renu Khator felt comfortable enough with Keenum representing the school that she'd bring him out for non-football press conferences.

UH is celebrating its new Tier One status? Forget all the red and white balloons for a minute. Where's Case?

It's no stretch to argue that Keenum was as big a star on campus during his time with the Cougars as Hakeem Olajuwon was during the height of Phi Slamma Jamma.

 Kimberly Keenum is there too, with her white sticker nametag like everyone else with VIP access. The pretty brunette who became such a focus of the ABC cameras doesn't have to worry about obsessive attention now.  

His UH devotees are still vocal — whether it's amid the craziness of a Texans' open practice, at the grocery store, or on Twitter. But Keenum is a long way from being the face of an NFL franchise.

He's starting over without the slightest guarantee, just like he did at the University of Houston, where no one expected him to become one of the biggest stars in the college game when he showed up as a freshman.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak certainly doesn't appear to be counting him out of the third-string battle. Keenum will get his reps in the exhibition games.

"Y’all know that I think Case has come a long way for a young man in his situation," the coach says. "It’ll be a good battle and we’ll sort that out when we play in the preseason.”

Keenum deserved to be drafted. He doesn't deserve to be dismissed by so many. It's a hard-knock NFL life for a rookie without any big-dollar assurances. No one's reputation is riding on whether Case Keenum succeeds or fails in the NFL, the way Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland's future depends on Tannehill. Keenum won't be given a million chances.

But what's the point in brooding over it?

Case Keenum's moved out of The Half and he's more than all right with moving on.

"This is how it's always been for me," he says, shooting a piercing stare at any notion he'd harbor even the slightest self pity. "I start from the bottom. Everywhere I go."

As Kimberly Keenum watches and sees just how far he rises.

It's not such a bad life after all.

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