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Preview: K.C. Keeler & The Sam Houston State Bearkats


In 2019, many scrolling through ESPN's list of 150 greatest college football coaches in the 150-year history of the game may have been surprised to see a current coach they never heard of sitting at the bottom of the list. Coming in at 149, Sam Houston State Head Coach K.C. Keeler has silently produced an amazing coaching tree and continues to gather accolades amongst the coaching community. He now leaves behind the FCS and is ready to make the most of Sam Houston State's jump up to college football's biggest stage.

 

Keeler's Playing Career

Born and raised in Emmaus, PA, Keeler was tailor-made to be involved in the game of football. Growing up playing football whenever possible, he eventually stepped into the starting linebacker role at Emmaus High School. Combining his leadership and athletic prowess, Keeler received an invite to participate in the 1977 Pennsylvania Big 33 All-Star Game, pitting the best high school players in western Pennsylvania against the best in the eastern portion of the state.


A standout high school football star, Keeler was recruited by legendary Hall of Fame coach Tubby Raymond to play Linebacker for the University of Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens. Keeler played for the Hens from 1978 to 1980, highlighting his Delaware tenure with three interceptions throughout the 1979 playoffs. That year, Keeler helped lead Delaware to a Division II National Championship, beating Youngstown State 38-21 in Albuquerque, NM.


His leadership and athletic performance continued to stand out amongst his peers, earning Keeler a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1980. He signed another contract with the Eagles in 1982 and again in 1983 after a short stint with the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL.

 

Keeler's Early Coaching Career

After finishing his playing career, Keeler decided to keep his leadership qualities on the gridiron, this time remaining on the sideline. He began his coaching career as an assistant at Amherst College in Amherst, MA, for a year before making the move down to Glassboro, NJ, where he was an assistant at Rowan University.


Quickly rising through the coaching ranks at Rowan, Keeler was named the head coach of the Rowan Profs. He took the Profs to an amazing seven Stagg Bowls, the National Championship at the NCAA Division III level. During Keeler's time at Rowan, the Profs recorded 88 wins, 21 losses, and 1 tie.


There is one job that every coach dreams about: coaching their alma mater. In 2002, Keeler got just that opportunity, replacing his old coach Tubby Raymond as the head coach of the Fightin' Blue Hens. Keeler made big changes to the Delaware program right away, ending the Wing-T offense that made Tubby famous and replacing it with a no-huddle spread. Imagine being a fan and watching that transformation!

The changes Keeler made definitely worked. The Blue Hens returned to their first National Championship since 1979, beating Colgate 40-0 in the 2003 Division I-AA National Championship in Chattanooga, TN. Blue Hens fans experienced the performance of phenomenal players, most of whom were transfers, like QB Joe Flacco. In his 11 years at Delaware, Keeler recorded 85 wins and 52 losses.


As great as Keeler had been at Delaware, it all came crashing down. Three months into the job, new Athletic Director, Eric Ziady, made the controversial decision to fire the famed head coach in favor of Ziady's former Boston College coworker, Dave Brock. A decision Delaware fans still lament at games. Since Keeler's dismissal in 2012, Delaware has only reached the playoffs three times.

 

Keeler Cemented in History

After taking a year off from coaching to produce content for NFL Films' NFL Matchup, Keeler was named the head coach of the Sam Houston State Bearkats in 2014. Keeler picked up where he left off, taking the Bearkats to two consecutive semifinal appearances in his first two seasons. In 2016, Keeler's squad held the national No. 1 ranking through the last six weeks of the regular season and was the lone undefeated team in the FCS Playoffs, Keeler's first undefeated season as a head coach. The Bearkats made the playoffs and semifinals yet again in 2017, marking four straight playoff appearances with semifinal appearances in three of those seasons.

Even with the fantastic start to his tenure at Sam Houston State, it was not until more recently in 2020 that Keeler finally made it back to the National Championship game. The Bearkats' 23-21 victory over South Dakota State in the Championship Game cemented Keeler's name into the history books, becoming the first coach to win an FCS National Championship with two different teams. He is still the only coach to do so.

 

Sam Houston State Preview

The Bearkats are now transitioning up to the FBS level as members of Conference USA. Although Keeler can no longer continue to add to his record as the all-time FCS playoffs win leader, he is bound to make an impact on the game's biggest stage.


The highlight of the offense will be the offensive line. Transfer Ethan Hagler will come in and take over the Center role, kicking last year's starter, D'Ary Patton, out to Right Tackle. At 6-foot-4, Graceson Jackson-Smith should be a monster at Left Tackle. This squad struggled in pass protection last year, so improvement is needed in that aspect. With last year's leading rusher, Zach Hrbacek, returning and Quarterback being a question mark, the ground game will be the focal point of this offense.

The Bearkats may have the best linebacker corps in Conference USA between Kavian Gaither, last year's leading tackler (79), and Jaylen Phillips, last year's second-leading tackler (36). The defensive line returns Markel Perry, who has the size to be an SEC edge rusher, and brings in a transfer interior lineman in Akeem Smith from Georgia State. Even the secondary doesn't have any question marks with Davis Fisher returning at CB and Caleb Weaver returning at Safety. ULM transfer Jabari Johnson will take the Safety spot opposite Weaver.


Overall, Sam Houston State should be dominant defensively. Offensively, they are going to struggle as many one-faceted offenses do. The true struggle will appear when they face teams with great defensive secondaries. Teams that will give them fits include, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, and Liberty. However, teams that can get past question marks to secure a victory do so because of great coaching. And the Bearkats have one of the best. I wouldn't count the Bearkats out of any contest with K.C. Keeler on the sidelines. Sam Houston State has the opportunity to come in and compete with the top Conference USA opponents.

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