Those who remember the 1991 Nebraska football season will remember a quarterback coming out of nowhere to lead the Huskers to their first Big Eight title and Orange Bowl birth since 1988.
Keithen McCant was a fifth-year senior who took over the starting QB job midway thru the first game of the season against Utah State and never gave it up.
In his previous seasons, McCant never went from being higher than No. 3 on the quarterback depth chart at NU, to being named first-team All-Big Eight and the conference’s offensive player of the year, completing 57.7 percent of his passes for more than 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns, while rushing for more than 600 yards and seven touchdowns in his final year.
McCant was a dual-threat quarterback, but could pass the ball better than he could run it. At Grand Prairie High School located in the Dallas, Texas area, he was the offensive player-of-the-year in the his district in 1986, completing 72 of 161 passes for 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in leading his team to a district title.
McCant was recruited heavily by the now defunct Southwest Conference schools which included Texas, Texas A&M and SMU. Being from Texas, he of course seriously considered the instate schools, but surprisingly not the Texas Longhorns.
“Back then Texas had the attitude of ‘You should come to Texas because of who we are.’ That disappointed me and I really never considered them,” McCant said. “But being a Texas kid, the Southwest Conference was the conference. I looked mostly at A&M because my cousin played there and SMU. SMU was my dream school and would have gone there but they were placed on the “death penalty” in 1987.”
McCant’s stepfather coached at SMU, so he grew up watching them and went to all their camps. “I used to carry Eric Dickerson’s and Craig James’ helmets. They were the “Pony Express” and were such a powerful program at the time. They used to be a top-five program in the early to mid-80s.”
Nebraska at first was out of the picture until head coach Tom Osborne and assistant coach Turner Gill gave him a call. Gill who starred at quarterback for the Huskers and was from nearby Fort Worth, Texas, convinced McCant to visit.
“After my visit I was impressed, and thought Nebraska would be a good place to go to school. I was one of the top quarterbacks coming out of high school. It was ironic because I never ran the option offense. My high school team threw the ball. But I went to Nebraska because of Coach Osborne and the school itself. I wanted to get a good education and they gave me that.”
Even though the Huskers also recruited and signed Mickey Joseph, the nation’s top option quarterback that year, McCant never wavered in his decision. “If you are a competitor, that shouldn’t concern you. You are going to have competition anywhere you go.”
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound McCant played on the junior varsity team as a true freshman then redshirted in 1988. He then saw limited playing time over the next two years, rushing for 75 yards on eight carries and throwing two of three passes for 32 yards.
“I would be lying to say I didn’t think about transferring,” McCant said. “But I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends, so it would have been hard for me to go to another school and start all over again. It just took me a longer time to adjust to running the option than I thought it would.”
Better late than never.
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Shane Gilster is the Editor of Big Red Report Magazine. His stories focus mainly on catching up with former Huskers and examining Nebraska athletic history.