COVID-19 robbed Ryan Keeler and JJ McCarthy of one last go-around as Nazareth football teammates.
But Keeler already has circled the date for the next time he expects the pair to be on the same field together.
“I always tell JJ, ‘Sept. 25, 2021,’” Keeler said jokingly. “Rutgers and Michigan at the Big House. I told him I’m sacking him five times.”
McCarthy, a Michigan quarterback recruit, was Illinois’ No. 1 player in the Class of 2021 before transferring to IMG Academy in Florida in order to play a fall prep season.
Keeler, a three-star defensive end, was the area’s top uncommitted player in the class before announcing on Twitter Tuesday he’s committed to Rutgers.
Oddly enough, Rutgers was the last of 32 Division I schools to offer Keeler a scholarship. But the Scarlet Knights were starting their bid from a position of strength.
Defensive line coach Jim Panagos had been recruiting Keeler for Minnesota before switching Big Ten teams.
“Coach Panagos left for Rutgers in January,” Keeler said. “I knew then (Rutgers) was going to offer me because of how good a relationship we had.”
Keeler likewise was able to find a connection with Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, whose off-the-field efforts also resonated.
“They set a GPA record,” Keeler said of the Scarlet Knights’ 3.35 spring semester mark and 3.09 cumulative GPA in Schiano’s first semester back leading the program.
“I didn’t want to go to a school and just be used for football,” said Keeler, who plans to major in business. “I want to get a good degree and set myself up for life after football.”
Before that, though, he expects to play plenty of football, if not right away,
When the IHSA postponed football till next spring, Keeler said he would either transfer out of state to play this fall or enroll in a remote learning curriculum and graduate early.
He chose the latter and is studying with Apex Learning, while continuing to train. That continues a trend that’s been going on since Nazareth finished runner-up in Class 7A last November.
Keeler, who is 6-5, played at 255 pounds last season, “I felt I was a little too big and too slow,” he said.
So he dropped 30 pounds of fat and added 20 pounds of muscle to get to his current 245 pounds.
“It’s a game changer,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said of Keeler’s transformation. When Racki saw Keeler’s improved speed during summer workouts, “I would joke with him, ‘Keeler, you’re like a wide receiver.’”
The extra strength and quickness made Keeler a more prized prospect, according to Rivals Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt.
“He’s a north-south type of defensive end,” Helmholdt said. “He’s got good quickness off the ball, good size for the position.”
Helmholdt watched Keeler in Nazareth’s 39-29 win over Marist last October and came away impressed.
“He played both ways,” Helmholdt said. “To be able to do that and keep your motor running for four quarters was impressive.”
Some of Keeler’s former Nazareth teammates are playing this fall. Syracuse-bound tight end Landon Morris, now at Fishers, Ind., caught a touchdown pass in a season-opening loss last Friday.
“Honestly, it’s a really weird feeling knowing I should have my first game (Friday),” Keeler said, “But I’m not going to dwell on it, to sit here and be sad.”
The first Rivals 250 national rankings for incoming juniors are out and four Illinois players made the cut.
St. Rita’s versatile receiver/running back Kaleb Brown is No. 66, followed by Nazareth receiver Tyler Morris at No. 70, Evanston linebacker Sebastian Cheeks at No. 97 and Naperville Central receiver Reggie Fleurima at No. 172. All are four-star prospects.
“It’s a decent year in the state of Illinois,” Helmholdt, the Rivals analyst, said. “Those guys at the top are legit national recruits.”
Exodus from Illinois
The list of high school players who have left the state in search of a fall season continues to grow.
Among the recent departures: Lyons senior linebacker Jimmy Pouba to Mesa, Ariz.; Montini sophomore quarterback Tre Jones to Denmark, Ga.; Nazareth senior offensive lineman Sean O’Hara to Southeast Polk, Iowa; and Nazareth senior receiver/defensive back Amarion Evans to be a teammate of Landon Morris at Fishers, Ind.