Variety explains the early part of Keller’s , marked by statistics that match the upper echelon at his position. Variety explains Keller’s workweek, spent shuffling among position groups, his abundance of mentors, his growing skill set.
Case in point: last Sunday against Miami, Keller beat double coverage, man coverage and zone coverage. He beat safeties, cornerbacks and linebackers, sometimes two at once. He lined up in the left and the right slot, split right and on each side of the line.
“I don’t care who I’m matched up against,” Keller said. “When I’m in single coverage, I like my chances against anybody. There’s no matchup I can’t win.”
As the Jets hit the road for another division game, at Buffalo on Sunday, Keller ranks second among tight ends with three touchdowns. He holds for team highs in receptions (15) and receiving yards (226), which accounts for 43.7 percent of the Jets’ passing offense.
In short, Keller is becoming the player the Jets expected when they drafted him in 2008. He is, as Coach often jokes, a bona fide fantasy football threat. But his production the past two weeks, while striking, was actually seven years — and one position switch in 2004 — in the making.
Keller never wanted to play tight end. He wanted to play basketball, and he said that in high school, he dunked on Greg Oden and Kendrick Perkins, now centers. Back then, Keller idolized receivers, none more than .
Before his senior season, Keller weighed 185 pounds — with a backpack full of books. He played sports year-round: football, then basketball, then track, which left little time for lifting weights. After committing to Purdue, Keller drank five protein shakes and ate a loaf of bread made into peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, each day.
At a state track meet in Indiana, the crowd gasped when Keller took off his warm-ups, his older brother, Drew, said in a telephone interview. He had gained 25 pounds and looked, Drew Keller said, “just massive.”
But Keller still wanted to play receiver, still wanted to emulate Rice. at Purdue, Joe Tiller, had another idea. He knew Keller would continue to gain weight naturally, and he thought Keller was too slow to play inside as a possession receiver.
Tiller guessed the switch would meet initial resistance, so, he said, he told Keller: “There’s a real good tight end in this conference, and he’s the same size as you, and he blocks the snot out of everybody. His name is Dallas Clark.”
Clark converted to tight end from linebacker at Iowa, becoming part of an emerging trend: athletic tight ends known primarily as receiving threats. Keller watched Clark on tape and immediately thought, “I can do this.”
Eventually, through hundreds of workouts and thousands of calories, the 6-foot-2 Keller weighed 240 to 250 pounds. At first, he said, he felt as if he were carrying a small child. Until Keller’s senior season, Tiller removed him on obvious running downs in favor of better blockers. He used to joke that Keller was allergic to contact.
“That’s not true,” Tiller said last week when reached at his home in Wyoming. “But I told him: ‘Part of your game has to change. The physical part.’ ”
Thus the transformation of Dustin Keller started. Mike Devlin, now the Jets’ , graded Keller highly at the N.F.L. combine. The first season, Devlin addressed Keller only as Kid. Devlin told Keller that players had to earn their names.
Keller spent his rookie season overwhelmed, playing with , the most freelancing quarterback. He spent his second season confined to an offense limited by quarterback ’s erratic play. But their combining for three touchdowns in last season’s playoffs was a harbinger.
For all his outward confidence, Keller impressed coaches and teammates with extra work. He often arrived at team headquarters at 6:30 a.m. He spent time with the receivers, working on routes. He spent time with the offensive linemen, working on blocking. He spent time in the film room, studying similar tight ends like Antonio Gates and Clark.
Keller enlisted half a dozen mentors: Devlin; fullback Tony Richardson; and tight ends Tony Gonzalez (through Richardson), Ben Hartsock, Chris Baker and Bubba Franks. Keller even hired the Jets’ chef to make his meals at the beginning of each week.
“I doubt I would have made the N.F.L. as a receiver,” he said. “I want to be the best tight end in football. I want Mark and I to be and Dallas Clark.”
To that end, Keller estimates that he spends four additional hours each week with Sanchez, his teammate turned brother, their connection almost cosmic. When Sanchez hosted a camp for skill-position players this off-season in California, Keller booked his ticket first. The two attend Broadway shows like “Memphis,” and watch extra film.
In fact, they fine-tuned their second touchdown against the the week before, after practice, with the backup quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and serving as defenders. The Dolphins, Coach Tony Sparano said, double-covered Keller on that play, but he scored anyway.
Most important, though, Keller became the receiving threat the Jets had expected only after he continued his development as a blocker. As Hartsock said: “Everybody looks at him as a one-dimensional player, but he’s not. He’s gotten more comfortable and confident.”
Like Tiller at Purdue, the Jets used to remove Keller on running downs, which meant defenses expected them to pass whenever Keller took the field. Against the Dolphins, Keller blocked as well as he received. If defenses must account for that, then Keller finds himself in the matchups he finds favorable: too fast for linebackers, too strong for defensive backs.
Ryan said that most Jets opponents this season had played cover-2, a zone with two deep safeties, opening the middle of the field for Keller. The best way to defend him, Ryan said, would be bracket coverage, with defenders on each side and over the top. But that would put the Jets receivers in single coverage on the outside.
In that way, Keller fits into the new breed of tight ends. He won a high school state championship in the high jump (personal best 6 feet 10 inches), nearly played basketball at Purdue, and followed in the footsteps of Gates and others. His combination of size, speed and athleticism begs for a double team.
“The ideal is a guy who can play every down, who can run block and be a receiving threat,” Devlin said. “You don’t find a lot of those guys in college. It’s all spread. When you find one and develop one, it’s special.”
Sometimes, the Keller family looks back at old photographs. In one newspaper clipping, Keller wore only shoulder pads, his hair a mini-Afro. At the time, Drew Keller said, he thought his brother looked chiseled. Compared with his physique now, he just looked skinny.
So continues the transformation of Dustin Keller. The switch that keeps on giving.