Let's get to the bottom of this. Kellen Moore has an ideal physique for a quarterback—if that quarterback competed in an adult flag football league. He's listed at 6 feet on the Boise State roster and may very well be that tall, if measured from the crown of the Boise blue ball cap he was sporting last week. He's not very fast. "He runs a sub-five-second 40," says a teammate. "Let's leave it at that." Critics question his arm strength.
Yet this seemingly unremarkable 23-year-old, this laconic, shaggy-haired lefty from Prosser, Wash., this newlywed who looks like the guy at Best Buy trying to hustle two-year warranties, is about to become the winningest quarterback in the history of major college football. If the fifth-ranked Broncos (6--0) get past 3--3 Air Force on the blue rug in Boise on Saturday, Moore will move into a tie with Colt McCoy, who led Texas to 45 victories from 2006 through '09. After a bye week, Moore will likely break the record at UNLV on Nov. 5. What happens in Vegas will make NCAA history.
Even by the prolific standard he has set in four seasons as a starter, Moore had a monster day in the Broncos' 63--13 dismantling of Colorado State last Saturday. In 2½ quarters of work, he completed 26 of 30 passes—including his first 18—for 338 yards and four touchdowns. Boise's 742 total yards set a school record and left the hosts sounding a bit stunned.
"What did he hit—18 in a row?" asked Steve Fairchild, the Rams' coach and former quarterback. "When I played, I couldn't have done that [against] air."
Moore's been doing it for four years. He's the nation's active career leader in pass efficiency (168.6) and completion percentage (69.3) and is second in passing yards (12,596) and touchdowns (120).
What's his special sauce?
"He's just a normal dude who happens to be a football guru," says senior tight end Kyle Efaw.
"It's crazy how smart he is about the game," says Logan Harrell, a defensive tackle at Fresno State. "It seems like he can get himself out of any situation and get the ball where it needs to be."
"He feels the game very well," says coach Chris Petersen, now 67--5 in his six seasons at Boise. "He anticipates better than any of the college guys I've been around. And there's nobody in college football who works the pocket like he does. He slides, he glides, he moves up. He just has a phenomenal feel for avoiding sacks." A tiny silver lining for the Rams: They put Moore down once—just the third sack he has taken in his last 283 passing attempts, going back to Boise's last defeat, a 34--31 overtime loss at Nevada last November.
The Wolf Pack's defensive coordinator, Andy Buh, learned a lesson in the first half of that game. "We tried to fool Kellen with some disguises, and none of 'em worked," he recalls. "It took us a half to realize we were trying to confuse the wrong guy, so we quit and started picking on some other people."
"He'll look right at a defender, and go elsewhere with the ball," marvels Broncos nickelback Hunter White. "He's throwing to another receiver while he's staring at you. Try reading that."
"Rare accuracy. Rare pocket presence. Rare production," says one NFL scout. "Unbelievable kid. He slows the game down. He has the it factor—whatever you want to call it—that everybody's looking for."
Note that, while no one uses the word, everyone is talking about Moore's brain.
"He's a cerebral guy with an amazing football intellect who's been doing this forever," says Broncos senior wideout Tyler Shoemaker. "He ran a similar offense for his dad in high school. So when he got here, he had an easy transition."
Tom Moore won 21 league championships and four state titles in 23 seasons at Prosser High before resigning in March 2009 so that he could watch his sons play. Kirby Moore is a 6'2" Broncos sophomore receiver whose 95 touchdown catches at Prosser set a national high school record.
"My dad always wanted to talk about the big picture when he taught players," says Kellen. "It was never just, 'You run a hitch route.' It was more like, 'You run a hitch, and here's why you're running it and how it complements this other route. Here's how this coverage works, and what are its strengths and weaknesses.' He didn't just want to teach you your assignment. He wanted to teach you football."
His eldest son was eager to learn.
He still looks boyish, with the easy grin and mop-top 'do, but Kellen Moore has taken some adult steps this year. In July he married Julie Wilson, a former Prosser High three-sport athlete and valedictorian. The two had been dating since she was a senior and Moore was a sophomore at Prosser. The wedding was at the St. Regis in Park City, Utah. Moore's bachelor party consisted of four hours taking bobsled, skeleton and zip-line rides. The boys all came back with raccoon eyes, recalls Kris Moore, Kellen and Kirby's mother.
Moore is also working on his master's in kinesiology. And this fall he's immersed in an independent study project with left tackle Nate Potter. They're steeping themselves in the subject of "what highly successful people do to become successful," says Moore.
Among the books he's read on this topic: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Moore's preliminary conclusion: "There's no magic. A lot of times there's this misconception that people are just given this talent, that they never had to work hard to get where they are." Their common denominator, he says, is the willingness to submit to "that grueling, grinding, not-fun task, and to do it over and over. That's what successful people do."
He cites the 10,000-Hour Rule from Outliers, which holds that greatness requires the investment of massive amounts of time. Moore, it turns out, has been investing since at least the second grade. For show-and-tell, recalls Kris, he would draw a play on the whiteboard: "He'd tell the class, 'This is what the [Prosser] Mustangs are going to be running this week.'"
"He'd answer questions," adds Tom. "And he knew what he was talking about."
They recount a childhood that was custom-designed, it seems in retrospect, to turn him into a savant at reading defenses. Every day during football season he and Kirby would go from the elementary school to their dad's football practice, where they served as ball boys and mascots. By the time he was in sixth grade Kellen was doing drills with the varsity quarterbacks.
After games the coaches would gather at someone's house to watch film. Kellen tagged along. "He'd always have a little notepad with him," says Tom. "He was always drawing plays."
Kellen was a good-sized high school sophomore: 5'11", 155 pounds. "He grew fast," says Kris, with a wry smile, "and then he didn't grow again." That year he beat out a senior for the starting job. There was some muttering about nepotism, Tom recalls, until the season opener, when Kellen threw three touchdowns in a win over Mercer Island High, a much bigger school. "And that took care of that," says Tom.
In his final two seasons Kellen called his own plays. His father's only request was that he shout the audibles, "so I would know what was going on."
Kellen's junior year, the Mustangs took on nationally ranked Bellevue High. In Prosser's victory, Kellen threw six TDs—three of them to Kirby. A DVD of that game found its way into the hands of Justin Wilcox, who at the time was Boise's defensive coordinator. Wilcox became a lonely voice in the Broncos' football offices, advocating for Moore. I'm tellin' ya, this kid can PLAY!
Most college coaches who'd fallen in love with the quarterback they saw on film became strangely mute upon meeting him in person. "They'd stand up and shake his hand, and you could see it register," says Tom. While no one flat out told the Moores, "He's too short," they didn't have to. "They just never called back," Tom says.
Still, Moore had offers from Eastern Washington and Idaho, and things were looking up with Oregon State. Beavers coaches had invited him to work out for them to Corvallis. But when he got there, coach Mike Riley and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf "took the 10 quarterbacks who were 6'3"," according to Tom.
Kellen and the other quarterbacks were instructed to go to another field, where "a couple of graduate assistants basically told them, 'You guys just sort of play catch,'" says Tom.
"That was a long drive home."
Not long after, they drove to Boise for another workout. Petersen remembers seeing Moore across the practice field and telling an assistant, "He's not that short."
"You're looking at his brother," the coach was told. "Kellen's the other guy."
The other guy, it turned out, fit in very well at Boise, a collection of overlooked, overachieving players. After redshirting his freshman season, Moore won the job coming out of fall camp in 2008. In his third start, his first on the road, he threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns in a 37--32 upset of No. 17 Oregon. The Broncos lost to TCU in that season's Poinsettia Bowl. They didn't lose again until that Nevada game last November, a string of 24 consecutive wins.
Taking their cue from Petersen, the Broncos are declining to answer questions about their chances of moving to the Big East or their chances of returning to a BCS bowl for the third time in six seasons. Moore, meanwhile, is withholding comment on what is shaping up as one of the most fascinating subplots of the 2012 NFL draft: Will he be picked, and if so, when?
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. says Moore is "at best, a late-round pick." The scout quoted earlier, a Moore fan, ticked off his two most commonly cited shortcomings: size and arm strength. On the subject of size, it wasn't so much Moore's height that concerned him as his lack of bulk. The scout wonders if the quarterback, at 191 pounds, can handle the pummeling he'd take in the league.
Moore's arm strength ("average to above-average") is ameliorated by his excellent, lightning-fast release, says the scout. "It comes out so quick, and he has such anticipation, instincts... . He'll get bigger and stronger, too."
And wiser. Asked if it annoyed him that some experts are already predicting that he'll flop in the NFL, Moore replied, "I really don't concern myself one bit. I think you learn quick enough you're not gonna make everyone happy. So there's no sense in trying."
All he needs is for one team to believe in him.
"We've heard that before," says Tom, who has memorized the sign in the Boise quarterbacks' meeting room, which is his son's second home. It says:
3) DECISION MAKING
"Nothing in there about being 6'4."
SAYS ONE SCOUT OF MOORE, "RARE ACCURACY. RARE POCKET PRESENCE. RARE PRODUCTION. UNBELIEVABLE KID."
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
KELLEN TIME The son of a high school coach, the 6-foot, 191-pound Moore learned the position at a young age and is the active leader in career pass efficiency and completion percentage.
BUCKING THE BRONCO? Moore's stature and limited arm strength may not make him an early-round NFL draft choice, but his uncanny accuracy and smarts have made him 44--2 in four seasons as a starter.