There were no guarantees that Isaac Keener would see the field in fall 2019.
It was no fault of the Derby graduate. It was more preaching to the difficulty for any position, let alone a pass rusher, to make an immediate impact in the college game.
Keener wasn’t even fazed by those thoughts.
The former Panther played in seven games under head coach Craig Schurig and made his presence felt inside the MIAA. He tallied 10 tackles as a true freshman, but made his mark on Oct. 19, 2019, when he picked up two sacks against Missouri Southern State.
The results didn’t come as a surprise for a coaching staff that saw him progress from an almost-guaranteed redshirt to an immediate contributor.
“As we got out of camp and were preparing for our first game, our defensive line coach [LaRon Moore] was telling me that he’s one of the top two defensive ends we have,” Schurig said. “He said he did some things better than our upperclassmen.”
The Ichabod staff didn’t want to throw Keener to the wolves right away as the defensive lineman didn’t make his debut until week four at Central Missouri.
However, that didn’t mean that the coaches took their foot off the gas pedal in practice. The Derby graduate had a “baptism-by-fire” moment as he lined up across from Kyle Hinton, who would later become the seventh Ichabod to hear his name called in the NFL Draft.
Facing the 6-foot-2, 311-pound four-year starter was a tall task for nearly any player, but it was beneficial from both a physical and technique angle for Keener.
“He was a strong dude and I’d try to learn from him,” he said. “He’d talk to me about some stuff that worked against him and he’d show me in drills what didn’t work.”
With his work ethic never being in question, Schurig said the staff was comfortable with the setup given how advanced Keener was from a fundamental side.
“Technique is really tough for our high school kids,” Schurig said. “Isaac gets his hands inside though and he has great takeoff. He shoots his hands, gets control of the offensive lineman right off the bat. It takes a while for most kids to get that down.”
Add in offensive linemen that stood even taller or wider than Hinton and his technique became even more critical in his quest for playing time.
“Coach [Moore] saw that I like to use my feet and that I like to go inside sometimes,” Keener said. “I’d use a 1-2 stutter step to get offensive linemen off-balance and try to get to the quarterback.”
Schurig was aware of Keener and his broken leg during his junior season. Having seen the statistics he put up as a senior in high school, the Washburn staff got a glimpse of why he was capable of making an impact so early in his career.
“Football practice is really tough, especially on the line of scrimmage,” Schurig said. “When you have someone who has pushed themselves through [adversity], you see that work ethic. That very well could be why he’s such a mature player because he doesn’t take it for granted. He’s an impressive player.”
Like any other freshman who is fortunate enough to see the field immediately, Schurig and his staff can’t help but smile as they wonder where Keener will stand by the time he finishes at Washburn.
“As a coach you’re very excited [at what’s ahead],” the coach said. “Once Isaac gets that ‘man’ strength that college gives you with strength programs, he’s just going to continue to get better and better.”