Nazareth standout to Rutgers
DE Ryan Keeler relishes challenges facing him
By Steve Metsch
A key defensive player on Nazareth Academy’s football team is taking his talents to Rutgers University, hoping to help build that program to a level he enjoyed in high school.
Ryan Keeler is slated to play defensive end for Rutgers. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior will enroll there in January and graduate from Nazareth on-line.
The upcoming football season could be played in the spring of 2021, pending the coronavirus pandemic.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Illinois high school football – which right now is set to also be played in the spring – Keeler said he had no choice but to leave the La Grange Park high school earlier than scheduled.
Rutgers won out over 31 other programs interested in Keeler. That long list included Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Virginia and Wisconsin.
“We really couldn’t find any negatives about the school,” Keeler said. “The whole coaching staff, is very similar to Nazareth. They have really strong beliefs. They’re bonded like family. That’s something I wanted. It really felt like home.”
Keeler wants to help elevate the Rutgers football team – which was 2-10 in 2019 and has endured five straight losing seasons, to the success he enjoyed at Nazareth – a perennial state title contender under Head Coach Tim Racki.
“I want to build up something there,” Keeler said. “I didn’t want to somewhere where it’s already built and I’m just riding the wave. I want to be part of the come up.”
A two-way player, Ryan Keeler started at a defensive end and left tackle, where he protected star quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Photo by Steve Metsch.
Keeler is leaning toward majoring in business, and hopes to take care of business on the field next spring with the Scarlet Knights.
“I prefer defensive end,” Keeler said. “That’s where I’ve been playing my whole life. I only started playing (on the) offensive line my freshman year of high school.”
Keeler started each game last season, which saw Nazareth go 13-1. The only loss was 37-13 to Mount Carmel in the Class 7A title game in November. The Roadrunners won state in 2018, his sophomore season.
“I appreciate everything Naz did for me,” Keeler said “Coach Racki. I couldn’t ask for a better three years of high school, but this is something I had to do.”
“Without the Naz coaches, where I am today would not be possible,” Keeler said. “They prepared me as a football player. I left the program as a better man and a better person, for sure.”
Last week, Keeler watched the 2019 title game on YouTube. 13 defeat.
Mount Carmel “was a very well coached team,” he said. “They were disciplined. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
Racki will miss having Keeler on the team, but said the move “is a great thing for him.”
“Ryan is really impressed with, obviously, the academics there, the defensive line coach and the head coach,” Racki said. “It’s a lot of upside. The biggest thing was the relationships he developed with the coaching staff in the recruiting process. They hit all the right buttons with Ryan.”
Keeler “was outstanding on both sides of the line,” at Nazareth, Racki said.
“He’s in tremendous shape,” Racki said. “He looked even better, strong and faster, when we were training in the summer. … I was joking with him in June that we’ll put him at wide receiver for some plays this season.”
Racki praised Keeler’s work ethic and conviction: “He’s a great teammate. Never got rattled. Never beat his own chest. A tireless worker and a supportive teammate as well.”
Playing both sides of the ball is rare, Racki said. “There aren’t many who can do it these days.”
He expects Keeler will be playing for Rutgers “faster than most people think.”
In the meantime, Keeler said he plans to stay in touch with his Nazareth teammates. That includes former quarterback J.J. McCarthy, whom Keeler protected at left tackle.
“I was talking to J.J. about 30 seconds ago,” Keeler said. “He’s good. It’s just a hard adjustment. It’s all football all day.”
McCarthy, one of the star high school quarterbacks in Illinois the past two seasons, also left Nazareth a year early.
McCarthy, who is committed to Michigan, joined the IMG Academy in Florida because high school football is planned to be played there this fall.
Keeler is well aware their paths may cross in college.
“I always tell him Sept. 25, 2021, I am sacking him. That’s when Rutgers plays Michigan,” Keller wrote in a text.
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