Keeton isn't the only one relieved about the prospect of throwing behind five returning starters in Kyle Whimpey, Kevin Whimpey, Jamie Markosian, Eric Schultz and Tyler Larsen. In fact, there isn't a player who is more integral to the team's success.
Utah State needs its linebackers, its linemen, its receivers to succeed. Every piece is valuable. But in a league dominated by quarterback play six Mountain West passers are on the Manning Award watch list Keeton is an irreplaceable cog for the Aggies.
It's not a pressing danger. With returning experience, a run game that takes off the pressure, and changes in Keeton's own game, chances are good that he'll stay upright. But that particular "what if" lingers in the back of Utah State fans' minds, and the program is working to ease that worry.
"What we've had going has been great," Larsen said. "We know how important he is to this offense. It just gives us, as an O-line, motivation to do our job."
Two seasons ago, when Keeton sprained ligaments in his neck against Hawaii, Utah State sent in Adam Kennedy. The junior college transfer was a surprise sensation, going 4-1 in Keeton's stead.
Kennedy now is competing for a starting job at Arkansas State. Craig Harrison, Jeff Manning, Jordan Brown and Darell Garretson are competing for USU's backup job, but only Harrison has thrown a pass in a college game.
There could be another Kennedy-type in that mix, but no one wants to have to roll the dice twice.
But beyond the Aggies' protection schemes, beyond which players are blocking for him, the most critical adjustments have been by Keeton himself.
The junior said he had a revelation lying on a stretcher after his injury. He realized he had to take fewer risks himself, or else all the blocking in the world would be in vain once he took off from the pocket.
"I had to think of it long-term and kind of unselfishly, because I had to think if I go down, how greatly it affects not just the team but our offense as well," he said. "It's just a mental thing; try not to take as much risk. Yeah, risk and reward go hand-in-hand in the game of football; at the same time, it's kind of like a calculated risk. So really after my injury in Hawaii my freshman year, it was kind of like my wake-up call, it just happened to be in a stretcher."
Keeton now slides more often. He runs out of bounds. Third-and-2 and third-and-1 are pretty similar situations, Keeton said, so the extra yard isn't worth it if you're out for the year. Coach Matt Wells said he was happy with how Keeton handled himself last year, piling up yards without putting himself at too much risk.
He hears calls from the sideline sometimes, telling him to slide or run to the sideline. It's not always coaches. Often, it's teammates.
"They look after me and have my best interests at heart," he said. "At the same time, I need to have my own best interests at heart. Of course that's going to be stay safe."
Going forward, the team is pushing the scenario to the back of their minds. The star quarterback is healthy. The Aggies expect him to build on last year, when he racked up more than 300 yards of offense a game.
Schultz, the team's right tackle, knows if everyone fills their role, that "what if" should fade away.
"We're just out there to do our job. That's always our mindset," he said. "We get our stuff done, and Chuckie gets his stuff done. It's a well-worked machine."
Building a legacy
Junior QB Chuckie Keeton is already rising up the Utah State record book:
• 1st in career completion percentage (65.6 percent)
• 4th in TD passes (38)
• 9th in passing yards (5,485)
• 9th in completions (4,573)
• Holds school single-season records for passing TDs, passing yards, total yards, and completions