The future of Christopher Newport football is a former state hurdling champion who hated the Rat Line and landed on Shoe Lane thanks in part to an offensive lineman's misfortune.
Say hello to Keith Gaines, a freshman quarterback from Roanoke. Captains fans caught their first glimpse of him in Saturday's home opener against Greensboro, and needless to say, he made quite an impression.
"Keith's a little different kind of athlete," CNU coach Matt Kelchner understated after Gaines threw two touchdown passes and orchestrated a flawless third quarter in the Captains' 40-7 victory.
Make that very different, especially for Division III.
Generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Gaines is indeed little. But his raw speed and instinctive wiggle separate him from the pack.
Rewind to Gaines' second snap Saturday. It was midway through the second quarter, and he'd just replaced starter Matt Long.
On a second-and-2 from his own 41, Gaines darted right, faked an option pitch and cut up the field for a 28-yard gain. He sustained the drive with an 8-yard, play-action pass to tight end Adam Gooch on third-and-4, and ended it with a 4-yard scoring flip to halfback Tunde Ogun.
It was just the spark the Captains (3-1, 2-1 USA South) needed after Long's lost fumble.
Nothing against Long, a junior and converted safety. He's better-versed than Gaines in the playbook, and his arm is at least Gaines' equal.
But he doesn't approach Gaines' athleticism. Few if any Captains do.
"I think we've got a real nice combination with (Keith) and Matt," Kelchner said, vowing to play both in the short term.
Long term, Gaines should be The Man, and his emergence might allow Long, an all-conference safety last season, to return to defense in 2009. But Kelchner is wise to keep the transition slow.
This is, after all, Gaines' first football season since 2005, when he quarterbacked Salem High to the Division 4 state title.
The 2006 Group AA state champion in the 110-meter hurdles, Gaines signed a track scholarship at Virginia Military Institute, where he was academically ineligible as a freshman.
"I used to show everybody (at VMI) my highlight tape," Gaines said, "and they would say, 'Why aren't you playing football?' "
Academic issues and the Rat Line, VMI's time-honored gauntlet for newcomers, soured Gaines on the school, and after three semesters he withdrew.
Enter Max Crush, a former CNU offensive lineman from Roanoke whose career ended with a severe neck injury. Kelchner hired Crush as a student coach, and Crush heard from contacts back home that Gaines was looking.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Captains receiver Tony Spradlin is a former high school teammate of Gaines'. In fact, the two hooked up on a 44-yard touchdown pass in the 2005 state final against Powhatan.
Gaines and Spradlin reunited in CNU's season opener with a 6-yard scoring connection against Salisbury. They were even better Saturday during a third quarter that saw the Captains outgain Greensboro 170-9.
"It was like old times," Spradlin said.
First Gaines hit Spradlin with a 43-yard strike that Spradlin caught despite freshman cornerback's Daniel Torres' interference. One series later, Gaines and Spradlin targeted Torres again, this time for a 34-yard touchdown that redefined unattractive.
"It was a horrible pass," Gaines said with a wide smile. "I threw it off my back foot."
Indeed, the ball wobbled and fluttered and had more hang time than some punts. But Spradlin outmuscled Torres for the ball near the goal line and strolled into the end zone.
"He has a decent arm," Kelchner said of Gaines. "When he steps into it, he can really chuck it."
Typical of a coach and rookie quarterback, the Kelchner-Gaines dynamic is a work in progress.
To wit, after Gaines' first touchdown pass, he trotted toward the sideline expecting praise. Instead, he got an earful.
Kelchner was not pleased with Gaines' choice of plays — CNU quarterbacks often must select from two options at the line of scrimmage — or play-clock management.
"You can't be mad at touchdowns," Gaines said good-naturedly.
"He's got to learn the offense and pick the right play all the time," Kelchner countered.
Gaines plans on doing precisely that.
"I love it here," he said. "It's a whole new world. I'm finished transferring."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.