Even at Case Keenum's lowest point, Kliff Kingsbury saw potential

Can Keenum take the Vikings to the Super Bowl? (1:12)

Ryan Clark and Louis Riddick break down Minnesota's Super Bowl prospects with Case Keenum at quarterback. (1:12)

Shortly after the Minnesota Vikings clinched the NFC North title last month, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury took to Twitter to share in the celebration and maybe further the fan base’s Christmas spirit.

Kingsbury dug up the 2011 University of Houston quarterbacks “Christmas card” and posted it to his Twitter account. Standing next to Case Keenum, his QB in his days as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Kingsbury and his position group showed off their holiday spirit, complete with seasonal sweaters, slick shades and their best GQ poses.

Kingsbury has long been a champion for Keenum, who was the first quarterback he coached when he arrived at Houston in 2008 as a quality control specialist. To this day, even in the height of his own season with the Red Raiders, Kingsbury hasn’t missed a moment of Keenum’s incredible season with the Vikings. Every week, the coach gets film from Keenum’s previous game sent to him.

It’s like watching a continuation of what they started a decade ago.

“Some guys have that innate sense to get out of the pocket and either get forward for 6 or 7 [yards], make it second-and-3 or get outside the pocket and find somebody down the field,” Kingsbury said. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around at knowing when his pocket’s collapsing, somebody’s coming free and getting at him, and he makes a play at the right time.”

When Kingsbury took over playcalling duties at Houston after Dana Holgorsen left for the offensive coordinator job at Oklahoma State, he held very little back from his QB. By 2011, Keenum’s sixth year of eligibility at Houston, the quarterback had “100 percent freedom” at the line of scrimmage.

“He made us look good as coaches because he could check into the right play, and then if you called a play and it was covered, he could scramble, move, extend the play and make it down the field,” he said. “It was a playcaller’s dream to have somebody like that.”

In Pat Shurmur’s system with the Vikings, Keenum’s mobility has become an oft-utilized asset. One area in which that’s benefited Minnesota most is on third down. The Vikings converted on 43.5 percent of their third downs this season, the third-best rate in the NFL. Some of that came from Keenum finding guys under pressure for a total of 68 passes converted on third down. Other third-down conversions came when Keenum picked up that yardage with his feet, rushing for five first downs.

As Kingsbury watches Keenum’s film, he reminds himself why he never called screen plays in 2011, when the Cougars ranked among the top 10 teams in the country in third-down conversions (48.4 percent).

“Why take it out of his hands?” he said. “He’s either going to throw for it, run for it or extend the play and find somebody.”

There’s no one better than Kingsbury to draw the parallels between Keenum’s college years and his breakthrough 2017 season, five years into his NFL career. The blueprint for Keenum’s success was crafted at Houston in a system built to his strengths.

So it makes sense that while many Vikings fans likely were pessimistic about the team’s chances when Keenum was thrown in as the emergency starter in Week 2 against the Steelers, Kingsbury saw the beginnings of what would be a magical year.

“I remember I talked to him after the Pittsburgh game,” Kingsbury recalled. “I called him and said, ‘You are playing at a very, very high level. Hang in there. You’re just about to get going.’”

And he did. But even in a game in which Keenum had his worst passer rating (65.9) of the season, Kingsbury saw the potential.

“He’s getting hit and they’re throwing the kitchen sink at him with blitzes and he’s moving and making some phenomenal throws down the field that were either close to being caught or almost caught,” he said. “You could just see that if he was given the chance to win the game, even though it didn’t work out, that something was coming. I knew in this day and age he was getting beat up on Twitter and social media. I just wanted to make sure that he knew he was doing everything he could do, just hang in there and keep balling because you’re really close to taking that next step. He’s done it, which is awesome.”