INDIANAPOLIS — Two years ago, Case Keenum walked into a local tryout for the Houston Texans hoping to get a chance in the NFL.
On Sunday, he might represent the Texans’ last chance to salvage this season.
Keenum will make just the second start of his nascent pro career as Houston (2-5) desperately attempts to keep pace with the Indianapolis Colts (5-2) in the AFC South.
“We definitely feel like a win is very important, especially this week and especially against a divisional opponent and especially one that is in the elite of our division,” Keenum said during a conference call at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center on Wednesday. “We know this is a big game for us against a very talented team, a very talented defense that’s coming in. They’re playing well. They’ve won some big games against some good teams as well. We know we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The fact that work will be done by Keenum is a surprise to say the least. But the quarterback has made a career out of proving his critics wrong.
In 2004, he led Wylie High School in Abilene, Texas, to its only state football championship. But two years later, colleges did not come rushing to his door.
Baylor, North Texas and UTEP showed some level of interest, but only the University of Houston made a scholarship offer. Keenum was recruited to play for the Cougars by Art Briles, the head coach who went on to mentor Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III at Baylor.
But he had his best seasons at Houston playing under head coach Kevin Sumlin, now the mentor for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.
Keenum left college as the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yards (19,217), touchdowns (155) and completions (1,546). But NFL scouts were scared off by a torn ACL that cost him all but the first three games of the 2010 season and earned him a fifth-year medical redshirt season in 2011.
There also were questions about Keenum’s height — the Texans list him at 6-foot-2 — and his ability to master a pro-style offense after starring in the Cougars’ spread attack. A poor performance at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine sealed his fate, and the quarterback went undrafted.
That led to the tryout with the Texans, who signed Keenum and kept him on the practice squad throughout last season. When Houston starter Matt Schaub struggled early this season, hometown fans began clamoring for the former college star to get a chance.
When Schaub was injured three weeks ago during a game against the St. Louis Rams, it was T.J. Yates — whose grandfather Gene won four state track championships at Anderson High School and still lives here — who came in to replace him. But when the starter again could not go the following week at Kansas City, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak turned to Keenum.
He completed 15 of 25 passes for 271 yards and one score in a 17-16 loss and earned another start this week, even though Schaub is healthy enough to play.
“I thought the young man handled himself extremely well,” Kubiak explained Wednesday. “I thought we did clean some things up as a football team and had ourselves in position to win a big game on the road, and we’ll give him a chance to grow from it.”
That’s all Keenum has ever asked.
He understands the position the Texans find themselves in this week. Indianapolis is coming off a 39-33 victory against the Denver Broncos two weeks ago, and the Colts have a three-game lead over Houston in the AFC South standings.
A loss Sunday night would leave the Texans in a four-game hole with eight games remaining — including a rematch at Indianapolis and a date with the 7-1 Broncos. That’s a less than ideal scenario for the team’s chances of winning a third straight division crown.
But Keenum isn’t worried about the pressure. He’s just focusing on doing what he’s always done, silencing the doubters.
“I’ve always tried to play with something to prove,” he said. “Every time I go out, be the same guy and know that nothing’s ever been handed to me. I have to earn everything I get with hard work and being the best I can be every play and every snap.”
The Colts don’t have a lot of film on Keenum. Head coach Chuck Pagano said the team will go back and look at some of his college tapes and, of course, his preseason appearances in the NFL.
But Pagano saw enough in Keenum’s lone start to be impressed.
“The kid has moxie,” he said. “He’s got savvy. He was cool under pressure. That’s a top-five defense he went against (in Kansas City). Made big plays. He’s able to extend plays. He’s got enough arm talent to beat you, enough weapons around him.”
There is some question as to whether Houston will have its full arsenal on Sunday. Starting running back Arian Foster is battling a hamstring injury and backup Ben Tate is dealing with four broken ribs. Both players’ status will be determined later in the week.
But there’s an energy from the fans, an excitement about a Texas native who made his name in Houston getting a shot to turn the team’s fortunes around.
“I’ve been really privileged enough to wear the name of Houston, the city of Houston, on the front of my jersey for a long time now, in college and now in the NFL,” Keenum said. “So being able to start and play here again is very special to me. I’m very excited about Sunday and coming out in front of a home crowd.”