It's impossible to say that former Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning has come out of nowhere.
Ball State may not be Alabama or USC, but it's in the MAC—the same conference that brought us Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The MAC has been pumping out NFL talent for years, but it still seems like Wenning snuck up on us just a little bit.
He's no Johnny-come-lately to the spotlight either. No, he has four-year starter experience on a team that got drastically better each year he was there. From four wins his freshman year and only six his sophomore year, the team went to two straight bowl appearances in his final two seasons.
Wenning finished his career with the fourth-most passing yards in MAC history after only Dan LeFevour, Zac Dysert and Byron Leftwich. His 92 passing touchdowns are a Ball State record. That same touchdown mark puts him in the top 30 of all time in FBS history and only one touchdown behind former NFL quarterback Doug Williams.
He's not finished yet.
Oh no, Keith Wenning isn't even close to finished.
Speaking to Bleacher Report on Thursday, Wenning said that his time at the Shrine Game is being spent trying to "open some eyes for those who don't perceive (him) as a top quarterback."
At those practices, I saw a polished passer who may have been the most pro-ready prospect in a group that included Cornell QB Jeff Mathews and Northern Illinois Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch. Wenning looked decisive, with excellent footwork and overall mechanics. The ball goes where he wants it to go, and it's consistent in terms of placement at all levels of the field.
At this stage of the game, that kind of consistency is rare—and valued. Combine it with natural tools that Wenning possesses, and he could surprise a lot of people.
I asked Matt Miller, Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer, to give me his opinion on Wenning.
"Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning is an impressive passer who stood out consistently on game film," Miller said. "With plus-level velocity and good ability to place the ball to all levels of the field, Wenning has the type of arm that will stand out in an all-star game, combine or pro day situation.
"Where he has to improve is in his anticipation of routes when facing a defense. He's yet to separate himself as a passer against NFL-level competition, so seeing him nail routes against coverage and a pass rush is huge."
Level of competition might be a question, but his college system wasn't anything too crazy other than working primarily out of shotgun—something Wenning is working to overcome with quarterback guru Donovan Dooley at St. Vincent in Indianapolis. Ball State head coach Pete Lembo worked more and more passing into the offense each year as his trust grew in Wenning.
That trust was well placed.
Wenning doesn't just have physical gifts. Above the shoulders might actually be the more impressive part of the overall package.
All three West QBs will play, but @shrine_game's Romeo Crennel says Ball State's Keith Wenning has slight edge to start over Rees, Price.— Greg Auman (@gregauman) January 17, 2014
A longtime personnel man in the NFL once told me that humility, more than anything, might separate the top quarterbacks from the rest. Guys like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning still have private QB tutors. They still look to get better each and every year.
When one asks a quarterback what his strengths are, the boilerplate answer is always something along the lines of "leadership, and I think I have a good arm." Wenning's answer was different. He said, "My work ethic is off the charts."
It's that kind of work ethic that makes Wenning who he is. He credits his parents with helping him become the kind of person he is on and off the field. His high school coach, John Reed of Coldwater High School in Coldwater, Ohio, was also a huge influence on him, with Wenning saying that Reed helped him "understand how to be a man."
In high school, Wenning finished as the Ohio State Division V Player of the Year, throwing 40 touchdowns his senior season. Coldwater, as a program, is incredibly successful and finished as the runner-up in the state championship that year.
When Wenning got to college, he quickly learned that he still had much to learn.
"My freshman year," Wenning said, "I didn’t know how much work and practice it took to win a football game. Coming from a successful high school program, I thought it was easy. As my career in college went on, it got better and better. I understood the things that needed to be done."
Wenning was actually told to drop weight after his freshman year, when Coach Lembo took over. Thus began the lesson that being a quarterback is a lifestyle that takes place on and off the field. It was a lesson that Wenning has learned well.
When I asked Wenning about his strengths, I also asked him about areas where he could improve. He didn't pull any punches, delivering one of the more impressive answers I've heard from a prospect: "I feel like I can improve my game in every area...you can never be satisfied."
Other quarterbacks—especially overlooked quarterbacks or "lesser" prospects (on media boards) like Wenning—often feel the need to trumpet their accomplishments or go to bat for their abilities. Tell a guy he doesn't have top-notch velocity, and he pretends he's got a Joe Flacco-like cannon for an arm. Not Wenning. There's no hubris there; it's just a genuine desire to be better today than he was yesterday.
I asked him what his mentality would be heading into the NFL.
"[It] depends on what situation you’re drafted into," he answered. "I'm going to go in with the mindset that I'm going to work hard—soak in as much information as possible, push myself up and compete. I'll make the most of the reps I get and try to get better with every one."
Although he's drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger, Wenning spent last summer working out with other top quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and others, calling those workouts "a good experience." Each of those quarterbacks has succeeded in the NFL despite strong reservations about them. They've also succeeded because of a work ethic that must look awfully familiar to Wenning.
It's far too early in the process to make any judgements about where Wenning should go or how successful he'll be in the NFL. He's got plenty of training to do, combine drills to master, pro-day throws to script and plenty of interviews to sit in.
Know this, though: If a quarterback is able to ignore the hype around him and the constant flow of people trying to convince him that he's the best thing since sliced bread; if that quarterback can wake up every morning and try to get measurably better at his craft than the day before...
Don't bet against him.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained first-hand.