Versatile Jeff Keeping finally lands as Toronto Argonauts starting centre
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - For Jeff Keeping, it's better late than never.
In 2005, the Toronto Argonauts drafted the 29-year-old native of Uxbridge, Ont., in the second round of the CFL draft. Although he played tight end at Western Ontario, the Argos projected the six-foot-five, 245-pound Keeping as a potential centre.
Eight years later — and after lining up at various positions in the CFL on both sides of the ball — Keeping has finally secured the Argos' starting position.
"It has been a long journey to get back here,'' Keeping said with a chuckle. "Eight years later I'm glad I'm in that spot.
"Obviously, I would've loved to have the job five or six years ago but to be here now and have the spot, I couldn't be happier.''
Keeping certainly took the long road to his present position. Although he made Toronto's roster as a rookie backup centre in 2005, over the next three seasons saw action as an offensive guard, defensive lineman, tight end and fullback before signing as a free agent with Montreal prior to the 2008 season.
But Keeping's stay with the Alouettes was a brief one. He missed the entire 2008 campaign with a knee injury and was released by Montreal on Dec. 11.
Keeping re-signed with Toronto in March 2009 and emerged as Toronto's starting left guard before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury late in the season. Over the last two years, Keeping has been mostly a backup offensive lineman with the Argos but made six starts combined at left guard.
In the off-season, on recommendations from offensive line coach Stephen McAdoo and GM Jim Barker, the Argos decided to give Keeping a shot this season at the centre spot. Keeping rewarded the club's faith in him by entrenching himself in the starting position once training camp broke.
"I didn't know about his ability to play centre, I just trusted coach McAdoo and Jim Barker," new head coach Scott Milanovich said. "Both of them thought he'd be a heck of a centre.
"It was a competition but he did a good job and is doing a nice job. I had a little bit of a history with Jeff in Montreal (where Milanovich was the offensive co-ordinator) so I knew what kind of guy he was, that he was a hard worker and tough. He's the kind of guy you root for and I'm happy things are going well for him.''
After seven seasons of bouncing between positions, Keeping said he has finally found the best possible one.
"I've always felt it was a position that really suits my skill set," he said. "Now I hope it can be a long-term fix me.
"It took me eight years to get here and now if I can hold it down for another eight years I'll be happy.''
There's much more to Keeping's new job description than merely remembering the snap count and getting the ball to veteran quarterback Ricky Ray. As the centre, it's also Keeping's responsibility to recognize defensive fronts and make the necessary blocking adjustments by the offensive line to better protect Ray. He also handles the snapping duties on field goals and converts.
"Probably the biggest roles of the centre is basically to put your guys in the best position to succeed," he said. "It means spending extra time in the film room kind of knowing what the defence is going to do before it does it so you can make the appropriate calls and have everybody on the same page.
"I took a lot of pride whenever I was playing guard that I knew other positions and what was going on and that I understood defences. We always practise it anyways in case we're in a loud stadium that the guards might have to make calls if the centre has to go with a silent count."
While Keeping wishes he had become a starting centre years ago, having the benefit of experience and maturity put him in the best possible position to succeed now when opportunity came knocking. Spending time early in his first stint with Toronto learning from seasoned veteran offensive linemen like Chad Folk and Jude St. John didn't hurt, either.
"They were probably the reasons why I made that team in my first year because they were so helpful," Keeping said. "In terms of the learning curve, I'm in a place now where the game has slowed down a lot for me and now I can really just work on honing my craft and the things I'm doing rather than worrying what the guy across from me is doing."
And neither does working with a proven veteran like Ray.
"That is something that has made the transition easier for me," Keeping said. "He's so calm, cool and collected and a very easy guy to bounce things off of.
"He's great that way."