Keeping cracks Argonaut lineup

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:09 AM ET

He went to the Toronto Argonauts training camp 20 pounds heavier. He wasn't playing his normal tight end position but was asked to move to the offensive line, which he'd never played before.

Toss in the fact he still had a year of eligibility left with the Western football team and most people would have wagered that come September, Jeff Keeping would have been wearing his familiar No. 78 as a key member of the Mustangs.

Keeping has surprised a lot of people, including himself. He's made the Canadian Football League team as a backup centre and offensive lineman. Calling it an accomplishment is an understatement of massive proportions.

Keeping was an offensive lineman in Grade 9 in Uxbridge and even then for "just a tiny bit of time. I wouldn't even count it."

While his position as an inside receiver with the Mustangs meant he had to do a fair amount of blocking, it doesn't carry anywhere near the same responsibility as an interior lineman. To learn the intricacies of the offensive line is one thing, but to learn it against battle-hardened professionals is quite another.

And if all that wasn't hard enough, Keeping moved to centre, the most technically and intellectually demanding position on the offensive line.

"It's still sinking in. It's pretty surreal right now," he said. "Exciting for sure. I have a perma-smile that I haven't been able to wipe off."

The Argos, who drafted Keeping 18th overall, never planned to use him as a pass catcher.

"I came here to work out for them at the (Rogers Centre) as an offensive lineman," Keeping said. "They asked me if I'd be willing to make the switch and I was all for that. I didn't see a lot of opportunities as a tight end but there was a lot more interest as an (offensive) lineman."

Keeping fully intended to come back to Western for his fifth year.

"That was the plan all along. It actually worked out better than expected," he said. "We all thought this would be a learning experience. I'd get used to the atmosphere, go back and then come back (to Toronto) next year knowing what to expect.

"I didn't see this at all. I just got some words to keep working hard, that I was going to make this a tough decision and that's what I did."

Keeping, six-foot-five, weighed 253 pounds at Western. He came to Argonaut camp at 272 but has lost some weight. He wants to continue to build muscle mass and eventually play at 280 or 285.

He'll need the extra weight. The pro ranks are filled with men who are big and quick. You don't get the 240-pound tackle or defensive end one often finds in university ranks.

"It's just as competitive (as university) but the level of play is so different," Keeping said. "When you're at school you have freshman coming in, you have different-aged people. The level of experience is all levels from a high school kid to a fourth-year guy. When you get up here everyone is so good. Everyone is fast. Everyone is strong. Everyone can play. It's about who can get the job done in big, pressure times."

Keeping can be excused if his head is still spinning. Even though he's a back-up to starting centre Chad Folk, there's a lot to learn before the season opener on Saturday.

Keeping already credits Folk and former Mustang Jude St. John with working with him and spending time with him after team meetings.

"Making the switch to centre was difficult," Keeping said. "I wasn't just learning my job but you have to pretty well know what everyone else is doing to make the proper calls.

"I got the basics but there's a million little technique things, ad-lib things that are game-speed type of things. It's corrections that I'm only going to be able to learn by watching, paying a lot of attention at practice and learning off the older guys. It's like being a sponge."

It's a lot of work. Putting on the weight and making sure it's muscle, not fat, is like a full-time job.

"At least now I get paid for it," he said.


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