Zone Read: Mikey Keene Unplugged

Arizona Sports News online

Mikey Keene’s sparkling two-year, 23-0 record as Chandler High’s starting quarterback was capped with back-to-back Open Division Championships, including a win over rival Hamilton to close out his prep career in late 2020.

After early enrolling at the University of Central Florida in January of ’21, Keene was pressed into action as a true freshman last fall, leading the Knights to a 9-4 record and win over in-state power Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl. In 11 games (10 starts), he completed 173-272 for 1,730 yards and 18 total touchdowns. He was intercepted just six times and had a passer rating of 133.20.

Earlier this week, Keene sat down with the “Zone Read” to catch up on a myriad of topics, both on, and off, the field.

Due to COVID, you never took an official visit to UCF, and committed site unseen. Now that you’ve been there for over a year, how are you enjoying your time on campus and the Orlando area? “Getting here a semester early was crucial to me. Adjusting to college and the things I needed to – being away from my family, getting acclimated to college, the school, and the time management. That was a crucial time for me being able to adapt and just focus on football because that’s why I’m here: to be able to excel at football and get my education, as well, and to be the best person I can be and set myself up for a great career. UCF has been great for me. I feel like the culture here is very similar to the culture at Chandler [High]. It’s a melting pot of ethnicities. I’ve been able to make a lot of connections and it’s a great place for me.”

Have you been to Disney World yet? “I have, yes. I went my first two weeks of being here and then, last semester, I got to go with some of my friends. I’m trying to go back this summer.”

Do you have a favorite ride? I’m a huge Disney fan. I’ve watched all the Disney Plus shows. I’ve always been sort of a Disney nerd. I love Magic Kingdom. Space Mountain is probably my favorite ride.”

On the field, you made your Central Florida debut, as a true freshman, last October against Navy. Did the game slow down a bit after you experienced that first hit at the Division I level? “It was such a rollercoaster of emotions. [Playing] happened so fast. I went from a position where I thought I’d be learning the whole year to, ‘Okay, I’m playing the rest of the year.’ It was probably the best thing for me, just being thrown into that experience. You find out what you’re really made of. I just felt like I was battle-tested, for sure. Take the good, take the bad, and learn from it. Get ready for my sophomore season – just prepare like I’m the starter and all the different looks I’m going to see out there from our practices and just being more familiar with our system. It’s been a lot of changing for me but it’s been a lot of good changing. ”

Much like when you were at Chandler, you didn’t turn the ball over. You didn’t throw an interception in your final five games (145 attempts) last fall. Were you even more careful with your decision making at the college level, being the starter as a true freshman? “It was just understanding that, sometimes, the best play to make is just throwing the ball away instead of putting our [defense] in a tough situation with an interception or any turnover because any turnover in college football is huge. College football is a big momentum game. I just tried to stay cool, calm, and collective as quarterbacks should do. I wouldn’t say I played more conservative, I just had a better understanding out what I was going to see. The guys are a lot more skilled on the defensive side of the ball in college football. So, it was just a learning curve with that, too.”

How big was it for the UCF program beating Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl? “It was huge for many different reasons. Right off the bat, obviously, huge for recruiting because now we can claim that we’re the best team in Florida. That’s huge, especially for all the ballers here in Florida playing high school football ball and all the transfers out there.  It was a huge game for us. A big game about pride and being able to play an SEC opponent. We’re still a Group of Five school, so there’s a chip on our shoulder with that. It was big for our alumni, former players, and fans to get that win.” (editor’s note: UCF will be joining the Big 12 in 2023).  

Your QB room at UCF looks a lot different now with Dillon Gabriel and former Desert Vista star Parker Navarro transferring out. Since only one quarterback can play, is the transfer portal a bit unnerving for you since the depth chart can change so quickly with so many players finding new schools and opportunities? “You’re going to find competition, regardless, wherever you go at this level. The competition is only going to rise if you’re good enough to go to the NFL. There’s always going to be competition and if you can’t embrace that competition, then this isn’t the game for you. I consider football the most competitive sport. All sports are competitive, but just being a competitor myself, I take pride in football being the most competitive thing I do in my life. That’s my mentality. Just work for everything that I have. ” 

What is one thing, either on the field or off, that’s been more difficult than you expected at UCF? “Off the field, it’s time management for sure. We get set up pretty well being student-athletes to where our class schedule and our football schedule don’t get intertwined with one another and have no conflicts but, managing when you’re going to do your homework, when you’re going to get your film study, when you’re going to get your extra treatment in, juggling all that stuff was difficult for me to grasp at first. But it’s just prioritizing things. Understanding you have to get things done, whether you like it or not. I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older. I have a pretty good schedule but when I first got here, that was, for sure, the biggest change.”

Were you homesick at all going across the country for college? “I was terribly homesick. I sounded dramatic. I felt super dramatic saying it but it was probably the toughest thing I’ve done in my life. I know a lot of people go through a lot of things but that was just super hard for me because I’m an only child, I’ve always been with my family. Leaving them was super tough but it was also very nice because, in that time that I needed to find people, I found some of my best friends now. Those were the people that I’d lean on and that I could talk to about stuff. The people I’ve met here in college, we were needing each other and we found each other. Great friendships were built off of that.”

I saw you put on 10 pounds this off-season. Did your mom FedEx out those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you ate when you bulked up before your senior year at Chandler? “[Laughing]  She didn’t. We have a little deal with a grocery store so I go and get my own Crustables. I try to eat two a day. I’m going to try to put on a little more weight this summer because it doesn’t really hurt as long as I’m not losing any speed. The extra pounds will help me take hits because, after last season, I could feel it a little bit. I was a little smaller still. I weigh 185 now. I’m trying to get to that 190-195 range.”

Have you gotten a chance to meet current Chandler quarterback, senior Dylan Raiola, who recently committed to Ohio State? “I have. I actually attended a spring practice when I was home two weeks ago. He’s a great kid. A phenomenal football player as you can tell. He’s a very charismatic kid. Very hard worker. I talked to Coach [Rick Garretson] about him. I mean, he’s going to Ohio State for a reason, where he’s ranked in his class for a reason. He’s a special player. I hope he continues the greatness of Chandler quarterbacks who have come through there.”

What’s more out of control right now in college football: the transfer portal or the insane NIL deals some of these players are getting? “Oh geez, I don’t know. They’re both tricky, tricky situations. The transfer portal is so berserk right now. I believe there’s 3,200 players in there or something like that. It’s just tough seeing all these kids I knew, saw them ball out, and they were at colleges and universities. They may have not been as successful as they wanted on the football field. Maybe you’re third on the depth chart there but in the transfer portal, you’re one out of 3,200. It’s a tricky situation. Sometimes you have to ask yourself, ‘is football meant for me?’ It’s just tough for the guys that don’t get picked up in the transfer portal. The NIL money? I love the NIL because I can take advantage of it but, some of the deals that are going around, I feel like the NCAA is going to crack down on it and make some rules. It is getting a little bit out of hand because it’s almost like free agency. I feel like college football is becoming more of a business than it should be. Kids coming out of high school are getting a bunch of money to commit to certain programs and, I don’t know, I’m all about playing for the love of the game. But I can’t blame kids for taking that money because, if I had an opportunity like that, that would be ridiculous.”