Keith working through slump

by Brian Stensaas

Rather than drawing up new schemes for Saturday’s game at Michigan State, Minnesota defensive coordinator Moe Ankney had a different thought in his head during his daily run through campus Tuesday.

What was he going to do about Charlton Keith?

Things started out so well for the young linebacker turned defensive end. Not even on the depth chart for the Gophers’ opening game against Southwest Texas State, Keith burst onto the scene a week later in Lafayette, La., with two tipped passes, a forced fumble and a pair of tackles.

His play only got better as he recorded two sacks Sept. 21 against Buffalo to go along with four tackles. But then something happened.

A big something.

Minnesota began playing teams with larger offensive linemen. And suddenly the lanky 6-foot-4, 219-pound Keith was being matched up against the brawny offensive linemen of the Big Ten.

Though he racked up a pair of sacks at Purdue, Keith has gone without a sack for two games.

He will get another chance to prove his worth Saturday at Michigan State. The Spartans’ starting offensive line is hefty, tipping the scales at an average of 304 pounds a man.

Despite his shortcomings, Keith does lead the team in sacks with six – one more than last year’s team leader recorded all season.

“Charlton has a lot of possibilities, but he’s tailed off in the last couple of games,” Ankney said. “He has not performed up to snuff, and we need to get him going again.”

To his credit, Keith is not a lineman by trade. A linebacker/quarterback in high school, he won the Akron (Ohio) City Series Player of the Year on both sides of the ball. On defense, he tallied 71 tackles and 10 sacks while throwing for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns.

After redshirting last season and winning the Defensive Demo Award, Keith made the switch to defensive end in spring practice.

“The defensive line is more hands,” Keith said. “Spring ball was the first time I had really put my hand down. I still really haven’t got it down pat.”

Keith’s lack of understanding at the position has shown. His playing time has diminished, though he’s still listed as the starter on the Gophers’ two-deep. Just don’t go telling that to Ankney.

“On my depth chart, he’s not a starter,” Ankney said.

However, the demotion is not permanent. Head coach Glen Mason has said all season no starting position is a lock. Both Ankney and Keith agree that in time, it is possible the young star will shine once again.

“We’ve been telling him all along he needs to get bigger,” Ankney said. “He hasn’t been able to do that so far, but it’s possible. There should be no problem in him getting bigger.

“He’s got good athletic ability, runs like a deer. He just has to utilize that and then get better at his weaknesses.”

The potential to be a force is there, and in time the once-heralded prep linebacker is certain he can turn Ankney’s nightmare into a soothing dream.

For the remainder of this season, he’ll take on whoever is thrown at him. And this coming offseason must be spent in the weight room, because it is evident Minnesota personnel won’t put up with his lack of size much longer.

“I’m confident I can turn my attitude around,” Keith said. “Last year I dedicated myself, but I slacked. And now I’m just average. The bottom line is I can change it.”

Brian Stensaas covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]