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After switching from quarterback to tight end in 2001, Mike Rhinehart embarked on a two-year crash course on the new position, before concussions ended his football career.
In those two seasons, he learned a lot, and now he’s trying to pass that knowledge on to redshirt freshman Dustin Keller.
In so doing, Rhinehart’s gotten a close-up look at the converted receiver. He thinks Purdue has a good one on its hands.
"I think he’s going to be great," Rhinehart said about Keller. "He definitely has the physical make-up, the Kellen Winslow (Jr.) type of body, and a great attitude to go along with it. The main thing about him is that he really wants to be good, and he’s going to work hard to be good.
"I think he feels a lot of colleges didn’t look at him (seriously) enough. He got to go with his dream and come to Purdue, and you have to give credit to the kid because he really wants to be a great football player."
Keller’s physical progress has been staggering.
He arrived on campus as a record-breaking, but not all that highly recruited, wide receiver, with good size and hands, but marginal speed. When he made the move from near-by Lafayette Jefferson High School to Purdue, he weighed about 200 pounds.
But through the course of his redshirt season, Keller exploded physically, reaching the 235 mark by the spring. Today, he’s weighing a packed-in 245 or so.
"I had no idea this would happen when I first got here," Keller said. "There was no supplementing at all, but this was the first time I’d started lifting weights for real. The weight just started coming and the numbers started going up. I guess that’s the difference between college weights and high school weights."
In addition to his added size, Keller’s strength has boomed.
According to strength coach Jim Lathrop, Keller’s bench press has improved by roughly 70 pounds, hitting the 385 mark. He recently squatted 550 pounds.
Also, Keller hasn’t moved backward in speed by any means.
Keller last week ran a mid-4.6 or so in the 40-yard dash, similar numbers to the ones he posted when he was a high school receiver. That number is slow for a receiver but very good for a tight end. And the former high school high jump champion remains so athletic coaches say he could be the most athletic tight end in the league right now.
"He’s done a great job," Lathrop said. "He works hard and he had some natural attributes that made it easier. He has a great mindset about knowing what he needed to do and where he needed to get, and he’s busted his butt to get there."
Keller’s new-found physical attributes, combined with his natural receiving skills, could make him a major factor at tight end for the Boilermakers this season.
"Physically, everything’s coming along real well," Keller said, "but from a mental standpoint, I think I need to get better. When that happens, I’ll be OK, I think."
Rhinehart knows the most daunting remaining hurdle all too well. After he moved from quarterback, it was an eye-opening experience adjusting to the physical aspects of the position, i.e. blocking.
"He definitely has the routes and the receiving ability down, and that’s a big part of playing tight end. But the biggest part that no one sees — none of the media or anyone — or talks about is the blocking," Rhinehart said. "It’s the most difficult part. It’s the difference between one tight end and the next. He’s going to have to come in and learn how to block and put his face in there and block guys who weigh 40-50 pounds more than he does. It’ll be a tough transition, but he’ll learn fast."
Keller will join juniors Charles Davis and Jeff Bennett and sophomore Garret Bushong among Purdue's corps of tight ends in '04.
Junior college newcomer Rob Ninkovich and/or freshman Ryan Baker could also conceivably contribute at the position, but both were also recruited for defense.
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