Having gone through the recruiting merry-go-round before, Gunner Kiel knew what to look for and the elements that were important in the decision-making process.
So when he weighed the options at his fingertips after he withdrew a pledge to Indiana in late October, he was comfortable with how things were going to shake out.
Thing was, even as the five-star quarterback from Columbus (Ind.) East waded through the different attributes of LSU, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, his heart kept pulling him in one distinct direction.
“Everything kept coming back to LSU,” Kiel said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with TigerSportsDigest.com. “That’s why I decided to commit.”
Contrary to what it might seem, the Kiel-LSU courtship was not as whirlwind as it might’ve seemed.
The nation’s top-rated QB had spoken to Tigers assistant coach Steve Kragthorpe before committing to IU and a relationship was hatched.
“He was very involved in how things played out,” Kiel said of Kragthorpe. “Even when he knew I was committed to Indiana, he stayed in touch with me and told me he’d help me however he could. He’s a good family man and it’s going to be an honor to be coached by him.”
When the connection with the Hoosiers soured in October, Kiel and his parents sent out feelers to a handful of programs they had considered before.
One of the first e-mails Kiel sent was to LSU.
“They’d been on my radar for a long time because LSU is a great program,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s a great school and I always had some interest.
“Right after I de-committed, I sent an e-mail to them and let them know I had an interest in them and wanted to see if they would be interested in me. I told them I wanted to make a visit if they were.”
Thus the dance began.
After a few weeks of correspondence, Kiel and his parents made the trip South for the LSU-Arkansas game. Whether it was by design or just coincidence, the Tigers offensive coaches dialed up a ton of early pass plays against the Razorbacks – perhaps a chance to showcase the scheme Kiel could fit into.
More important than that, though, LSU showed the fortitude it flashed throughout the 2011 season and roared back from a 14-0 deficit to rout third-ranked Arkansas 41-17 and punch a ticket to the SEC Championship Game.
“I was very impressed with the fan support and how exciting the atmosphere was,” Kiel said.
“I saw a lot of what I was looking for. It was a perfect opportunity to come in and compete and work hard for the job. I wanted to go to a place where I could be in bowl games and compete for a national championship. Then when I came down there for the visit, the guys were very laid back and easy going and then you have the best coaches in the country, too. At the end of the day I’m also going to get a great education as well, so it’s a perfect fit.”
In-home visits from Kragthorpe and then Les Miles only solidified Kiel's comfort level.
"They both made really good impressions on me and my parents," he said. "They made us realize just how good the situation is at LSU."
The one concerning element – one Kiel conceded was important at first – was the distance between Columbus and Baton Rouge.
South Bend is a 190-mile drive from the Kiel home, while Nashville is 250 miles away. LSU, by contrast, is a flight instead of a drive.
When the dust settled, though, that tugging at Kiel’s heartstrings won out.
“At one time I cared about distance, but after I stepped back, I just wanted to find what was best for me and wanted to go somewhere that gave me a chance to play for a program that wins,” Kiel said. “That’s definitely LSU.”
Now that a decision is made, how does Kiel fit in?
Although he ran for nearly 500 yards as a senior at East, Kiel is not a prototypical dual-threat quarterback. But he does have enough mobility to not be pegged as a pure pocket passer either.
With Kragthorpe in charge of QBs and Greg Studrawa entering his second season as the LSU offensive coordinator in 2012, the Tigers should have the flexibility to run a variety of different offenses, based on which quarterback winds up with the job.
Rising junior Zach Mettenberger is the likeliest candidate as the starter in 2012, but Kiel said he’s ready to adjust whatever scheme the coaches come up with.
“I think I can fit into any offense,” he said. “I can go under center, I go do shotgun, I can roll out, I can run the ball a little bit. I’ll do whatever it takes to win games and be competitive.”
There’s certainly a pedigree in place to give Kiel a chance.
Both older brothers were college quarterbacks – Drew at Illinois State and Dusty at IU. Their father Kip was a linebacker at Butler in the mid-1980s, while his brother Blair was the starting quarterback for three seasons at Notre Dame.
“I’ve had a lot of god role models right there in my own family,” Gunner Kiel said.
That close-knit family is in for a test, though, with the youngest member moving away in the next three weeks.
Kiel said his parents are likely to head to Baton Rouge for most homes games and will be around on the road as well.
“My mom is already starting to build up her collection of purple clothing,” he said with a chuckle. “They’re going to be ready.”
As planned, Kiel intends to enroll early at LSU and be in classes when the spring semester begins Jan. 17 – after a week in San Antonio for the U.S. Army Bowl.
That adjustment has been as hard as what happens on the field for some freshmen, but Kiel said he’s prepared for the rigors.
“I think I’m prepared for that part and I’ll be able to balance football and school,” Kiel said. “It’s going to be hard but I’m going to work hard and make it work.”