BOISE, Idaho -- They actually talk about this on the sideline. If the Boise State football team was left without a coach, which player would run the team? It's a no-brainer. Kellen Moore. The junior quarterback has that type of command in the huddle, that much feel for the game, that level of respect in the locker room.
"It's crazy how much he knows about the game," senior linebacker Derrell Acrey said.
Moore built that knowledge through a childhood spent following and emulating his father, a successful football coach, and a passion for football that leads teammates and coaches to teasingly call him a "football nerd" or "football geek." He always wanted two things out of life: To play football and coach football. It's not that he can't do something else. He's a second-team Academic All-American. He'll graduate with his communications degree next week -- earned in three and a half years.
Moore was named WAC Co-Offensive Player of the Year (along with Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick). He was a first-team All-American on some lists last year. He likely will be again this year.
And he's on pace to become the winningest quarterback in college football history and challenge the national records for single-season and career pass efficiency.
He's done all that while playing a high-pressure position in a complex, high-expectations offense -- and without the height, strength and speed of most elite quarterbacks.
The reasons: His mind and his passion.
"In an age where quarterbacks are kind of going in the direction of being these incredible athletes with 6-foot-6 body frames and NFL-type arm strength, he brings back what it's all about," said Bush Hamdan, Moore's backup in 2008 and an intern on the Maryland football staff, "which is being a very, very good football player who's a great decision-maker and who's accurate as heck. ... He's kind of keeping that kind of player alive." Moore's future in some ways was determined decades ago. His grandfather, Bert Moore, is in the Western Illinois hall of fame. He was a three-sport standout and a longtime coach.
His father, Tom Moore, was a junior-college quarterback. He built Prosser (Wash.) High into a football powerhouse long before his son played on the team.
"I just sort of grew up hanging around my dad's gyms and fields," Tom Moore said.
And he raised his two sons -- Kellen and Boise State sophomore receiver Kirby -- the same way.
"They were clones, that's the thing," Kellen Moore says of his father and grandfather. "Especially now that your dad gets old and you start to recognize a lot of the traits, the white hair.
"And you know you're going right down that same trail."
A SMALL-TOWN DREAM
For Kellen, like his dad, that trail began on assorted practices fields, gyms and tennis courts.
"As long as I can remember, I was at practices hanging out," he said.
He remembers the progression -- watching the games with his mom in the stands, moving to the sideline as the tee boy in grade school, earning the promotion to ball boy.
He didn't just follow his dad. He mirrored him.
"If he's downstairs watching tape, you're downstairs watching tape," Moore said. "If he pulls out a yellow notepad, you pull out a yellow notepad. You want to do what he does." And he quickly became enamored with his dad's creation -- the mighty Prosser Mustangs. The Mustangs were 234-38 with 21 league titles and four state titles in 23 seasons under Moore.
Kellen can rattle off the names of every Prosser quarterback since 1990. Those were his idols.
"I never even thought past Prosser football until late in my senior year," he said. "That's what I always grew up dreaming to be -- playing for your dad, to play for the Prosser Mustangs. ... Everyone grew up wanting the same thing." He began running the Prosser offense when he was 8. The Grid Kids program adopted the same scheme as the high school team to make sure the machine never misfired.
The coaches videotaped those youth games. Kellen, of course, studied them.
He began doing quarterback drills with the high school team in sixth grade.
And during spring break every year, Tom and his sons traveled the West to attend college practices.
Said Hamdan: "He was brought up as a quarterback his whole life."
NFL DRAFT HOLIDAY
Moore's passion extends way beyond the actual field.
Everything he wanted for Christmas and birthdays was football-related. He bought playbooks off the Internet. He acquired videos to study. He asked a grandparent one year for custom-fit shoulder pads.
The NFL Draft, his mom says, was a holiday in the Moore house. Moore would sit in the basement with a yellow notepad, an array of draft-related magazines and two TVs to watch the coverage -- start to finish, for two days.
He analyzed it all.
"The NFL Draft was huge for me when I was a little kid," Moore said. "Still is. ... I couldn't sleep the night before." He hasn't changed much in college. Acrey, who is one of Moore's roommates, refuses to watch football with him. Moore's coach-like analysis takes the fun out of it.
Teammates tell stories of DVRs jam-packed with all sorts of games. Even NFL training camp practices.
"Being who I am, I want to be the most prepared and most knowledgeable player on the field," Moore said. "That sometimes requires a lot more filmwork, a lot more studying of the game, a lot more understanding of the game. I don't think I'm wrapped up into it 24/7 by any means, but it does take a large chunk of my life."
CRAZY STATS AT PROSSER
Moore's dream came true his sophomore year of high school. He became the starting quarterback and led the Mustangs to a 36-4 record in three years while producing unfathomable stats. He broke Washington records with 173 career touchdown passes, 4,600 yards as a junior and 67 TD passes as a senior.
He completed 71.9 percent of his passes as a senior.
"They were crushing everybody," said former Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who recruited Moore. "It was like he was playing 7-on-7." Still, college coaches almost completely ignored him. Eastern Washington offered him a scholarship as a sophomore and Boise State and Idaho jumped in the summer before his senior year.
Recruiters were turned off by Moore's size -- he's 6-foot, 191 pounds now -- and his lack of speed. His "choir-boy face" and "mop haircut" -- as coaches describe them -- might have fooled people, too.
He's even a little awkward on his feet from being born with Achilles' tendons that were too short. He had surgery to lengthen them the day after kindergarten ended -- he walked on his tippy-toes before that -- but still must remind himself to raise his knees when he runs.
"He just epitomizes the looks can be deceiving title," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "And he also epitomizes what truly is important in playing quarterback, which is feel for the game, pocket presence, accuracy, toughness. All of that other stuff is icing on the cake." Moore, though, wasn't atop the Broncos' recruiting list. They chased a few other guys and offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin rated Moore "middle of the pack" at the annual summer high school camp. While Harsin and Petersen weighed their options, Wilcox offered to use a defensive scholarship on Moore -- he was that certain of his potential.
The consistency with which Moore piled up those huge numbers swayed Wilcox.
"What's unreal," Petersen said, "is (his stats) are going to be the same here in college."
THE WAITING GAME
Harsin offered Moore a scholarship in the summer of 2006. He didn't commit until September. What happened in between reads more like a teenage girl's diary entry than a football story.
"I thought we were pretty attractive at that time and he didn't have many things going on," Harsin said. "That was kind of a funny time. At some point, I remember almost getting turned off by the deal." Moore's reluctance: "I wasn't sure I was going to be able to play," he said.
He decided to commit two weeks before he actually did. He tried calling Harsin for two days, he says, and didn't reach him.
In the meantime, then-Idaho coach Dennis Erickson called to offer a scholarship. Harsin called 30 minutes later -- and Moore put him off again. He wanted to visit Idaho first.
"From that point on," Moore said, "I decided Boise State was the place for me. ... I don't think I get too wrapped up in disappointments of not getting recruited by other people. I view it as Boise State gave me an opportunity. Then it's up to me."
A PHENOM EMERGES
Every Bronco has a different story for the moment when they knew Moore would be a star.
For former quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie, it was that summer camp. Dinwiddie was the coach of the renegade team, made up of high school players attending the camp without their teams.
"I was running Boise State (plays)," Dinwiddie said. "He picked it up like that. Other quarterbacks, it was way out of their league." For Hamdan, it was the freshman scrimmages in 2007. That's when Moore began erasing teammates' doubts -- in his first fall camp, he threw way too many passes to the running backs.
"We flat-out didn't think he could play -- and he knows that," Hamdan said.
For many folks, including Harsin, it was the Oregon game in 2008. Moore walked into Autzen Stadium as a redshirt freshman and never flinched. He threw for 386 yards and three TDs in the Broncos' upset win -- including one throw that still makes teammates shake their heads.
Moore absorbed a huge hit from a blitzer while throwing blindly to a spot. He hit wide receiver Jeremy Childs in stride for a first down.
"That right there was pretty amazing," senior safety Jeron Johnson said. "I'll never forget that play." For nickel Winston Venable, it was a play in practice. Moore stared right at him -- and threw a pass to tight end Kyle Efaw without ever looking at the receiver.
"It was like a no-look pass in basketball," Venable said. "I didn't know people did that. He had me stumbling in my shoes." The Broncos quickly learned that Moore was better than they hoped -- and that their neighbors had made a giant mistake.
"Trust me," Petersen said, "everyone in the Pac-10 wishes they had him right now. ... He's a truly special quarterback."
ANTICIPATION IS KEY
The cliche is to say that Moore's mind for football is computer-like. That wouldn't be fair -- to Moore.
His greatest frustration in life, apparently, is that the EA Sports college football game doesn't agree with his reads.
"I probably get too riled up," the mild-mannered Moore said. "That brings out the other side of my emotions." Maybe he needs to call EA Sports about a consulting gig because everyone at BSU will tell you -- Moore almost never makes the wrong decision and he misses nothing.
He knows where the defense is vulnerable. He knows where he might run into trouble. And he knows what he must do to make a play work -- from shuffling his feet, to adjusting his timing to throwing a fastball or a catchable change-up.
"Before the game has even been played he's already got his mind made up of what's going to happen," Harsin said. "People call it improvising. I think he's already improvised in his mind what's going to happen. ... How he does that, I don't know. Those guys come every so often. He's just got some ability that you can't coach, you can't explain." Said Wilcox: "Playing against him in practice ... he not only knew where to throw it but he knew when to throw it. That's a pretty unique skill." Moore combines that sense of timing and his always-right decision-making with precise throws and NFL-level pocket presence, which encompasses his ability to detect pressure, move away from it and fire the ball downfield before he gets sacked. He was the least-sacked, least-intercepted quarterback in the country last year -- and he's close this year.
He has increased his efficiency rating by nearly 15 percent this season, ranking second behind Heisman finalist Cam Newton of Auburn, and leads the nation in touchdown-to-interception ratio (33-to-5). He also is completing 71 percent of his passes, which would break his own school record.
"Kellen doesn't have a bad game," Petersen said. "He has a bad throw or two." Harsin and Moore have an intriguing year ahead of them. Moore is playing as cleanly as any college quarterback ever has. He knows every whisker of the offense. He even coaches a segment of the quarterbacks meeting occasionally.
"He knows everything there is to know about the position that I know,"Harsin said."We'll sit down and go,'What's next?"'
As good as Moore is, as powerful as the praise is, you'd think someone would detect the hint of an ego.
Yet no one does.
If it's there, it's hidden so deep that not even those closest to him see it.
Moore pointed out this week that he has been fortunate to play with some of the greatest players in school history -- most notably wide receivers Titus Young and Austin Pettis. They don't get to accompany him to New York, but they're not far from his thoughts.
"A guy on a 6-6 team is not getting these opportunities," Moore said. "These things have just as much to do with the team as the individual." Even if the hype affected Moore, it's unlikely anyone could tell.
He has a world-class poker face. It's one of the qualities that makes him so effective. In the most tense moments this season -- the fourth quarters against Virginia Tech and Nevada -- he was smiling.
"He's just so calm, cool and collected," junior slot receiver Tyler Shoemaker said. "I feel like you can't rattle Kellen." That demeanor carries over to the sideline, where Moore gets on the phone to Harsin after each series.
"He usually calms me down," Harsin said. "He's like my therapist during games." The one time Moore shows emotion is after the Broncos score, particularly on touchdown passes. Even that is about the team -- he does it as much to entertain the backup quarterbacks as anything.
Either way, Moore's mom is happy to see it.
"He's learned to enjoy it," said Kris Moore, who is an elementary school principal. "He's become more animated. He celebrates. And he never used to before."
QUITE A MATCH
A theme developed in interviews with the Broncos' past starting quarterbacks: Petersen and Moore are a perfect match.
Jared Zabransky, the starter from 2004 to 2006, called the lefty Petersen's "dream" quarterback.
Taylor Tharp, the starter in 2007, sees it, too.
"Pete is an amazing coach, first of all, and he demands a ton from the guy in the quarterback position -- and I think that's on and off the field," Tharp said. "... Part of college is making friends, having a college experience outside of the locker room. Most times, players want to experience that as well. Kellen has got his head on so straight you'd never think that guy is going to go out and make a poor choice." Petersen, like Moore, is a coach's son. He also was an undersized quarterback who set records at UC Davis with accuracy and efficiency.
And like Moore, Petersen is universally respected for his success and humility.
"We both have football kind of in our blood with our parents," Moore said. "It's been a great relationship -- he's helped me out in so many ways." Moore, in turn, has at least saved Petersen a few gray hairs and a sleepless night or two. Teammates say he doesn't celebrate after games -- he goes home to watch football. He begins work on his master's in kinesiology in January. And he has had the same girlfriend since he was a sophomore in high school.
"I've never been around a guy that has been easier to coach that we have less worries about in terms of doing everything right," Petersen said. "... Coach Hars and I have laughed at that -- for all we've gone through with those other guys, who we love, it's like finally we've weathered the storm to get this guy. ... There's not a better role model in the country than him."
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
If Moore is going to develop an ego, it will be this week. He's being shuttled around the country -- from media gatherings to social functions and back -- as part of The Home Depot College Football Awards and Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Don't bet on it, though.
Petersen isn't sure Moore will even grasp the magnitude of his achievement.
"I hope it doesn't hit him," Petersen said. "That's the beauty of Kellen. He'll like to be in there in the midst of it, but not because he's there -- just because it's college football." On Wednesday, Moore traveled to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for the College Football Awards show. The first officer on the flight out of Boise announced that the Heisman Trophy finalist was on board shortly before landing in Denver.
Soon, he was signing autographs and posing for pictures. A gaggle of admirers with cell-phone cameras surrounded him in the terminal.
Moore was gracious -- but that's clearly not his comfort zone.
"He is so opposite of Hollywood," Wilcox said. "He's going to be sitting there (at the Heisman ceremony) like, 'Wow, this is so cool,' not realizing he's one of the guys everyone is there to see." Moore has had time to accept that idea. He cut back his "SportsCenter" viewing this year to avoid his own hype.
His face has been plastered across newspapers, magazines and websites, too. That will only intensify next year, when he will be among the Heisman favorites.
"He's like a big icon," Efaw said. "... To us, he's just Kellen. He's a normal dude. But as far as on the field, he's going to set every record there is here."