Gainesville's own: Noah Keeter rises from Florida walk-on to spring game star at tight end
When it came to the discussion of the tight end position in Florida football spring camp, Noah Keeter, Griffin McDowell and Dante Zanders were frequently lumped together.
The narrative was the trio all moved as a result of the injuries to Nick Elksnis, Jonathan Odom and Gage Wilcox, and that’s mostly true.
Yet Keeter, a Gainesville native and former standout at Buchholz High School, already had his sights set on the move.
A former walk-on stuck behind teammates considered to have a higher ceiling at edge rusher, Keeter felt the tight end position was his best bet to contribute as he prepared for his redshirt junior season.
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"Being here for three years, that room is so good. Brenton Cox and Chief and Antwaun and Lloyd, those guys, they're awesome. I love those guys, honestly,” Keeter said. “They're great, but I wasn't getting any playing time and it was a pretty deep room at the time. So I was like, ‘You know, I can probably contribute in a smaller room with the tight ends’."
Three months into Billy Napier’s tenure, and with more than a month until spring practice, Keeter floated the idea of moving to tight end. His new head coach didn’t immediately jump at the idea, preferring to see how things played out on the practice field. "I approached coach Napier (in February) kind of towards the beginning, 'I want to transition’,” Keeter recalled. “They said, 'We'll work it out, we'll see what happens with bodies and stuff like that’.”
Rather than wait until their hand was forced, Florida’s coaching staff moved Keeter to tight end by the end of the month.
With UF’s spring break the week prior to the start of spring camp, Keeter was digging into a playbook instead of sand. If he wanted to make an impact, at a position of importance in Napier’s offense, Keeter would have to work when others were not.
“I transitioned before spring break, so over spring break I was able to study the whole break and kind of figure out the offense on my own,” he said. “It's definitely tight-end heavy. We’re pretty much run through the tight end (on offense), so you've got to know pass plays, pass combos and run combos with blocking, but I've been able to pick it up pretty fast."
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Having hit the ground running, Keeter was able to help ease the transition for McDowell and Zanders upon the duo joining the unit, though the trio left much to be desired from a technical standpoint. Florida’s coaching staff adjusted their expectations accordingly.
“Once Nick went down and Odom went down, I was kind of like a veteran in the room already, which is kind of crazy. But I was able to help Griff and Dante switch over,” Keeter said. “They were definitely more lenient on us as a group if we didn't know what we were doing."
Zanders did have a leg up on the competition in a sense, considering the Boca Raton native played tight end his first two seasons at UF. Keeter had focused solely on the defensive side of the ball over the previous five years. He’d become accustomed to learning how to prevent an offense’s success, not aid in it.
“I played a little bit at tight end my sophomore and freshman years on (junior varsity),” Keeter said. “I haven’t caught a touchdown since my ninth grade year on JV.”
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It may not have counted in the win-loss column, but with the Orange and Blue game on the horizon, Keeter wouldn’t have to wait long to get his opportunity to record a touchdown.
In the final minute of the first half, Keeter scored from six yards out on a pass from Anthony Richardson to push the Blue team’s lead to 21-0 following Adam Mihalek’s successful extra point attempt.
Keeter also hauled in the longest pass of the day, a 29-yard reception down the right sideline, in the first half, in addition to a 18-yard grab in the third quarter, which set up Mihalek’s record-tying 52-yard field goal.
“He surprised me today. I played against him in high school at Eastside. He played defense, and he used to sack me sometimes,” Richardson said of Keeter. “But just him switching over to play tight end for us and just making plays like that, it surprised me. I’m glad he did it.”
It was a promising performance, regardless of Keeter’s preferred walk-on status. In Napier’s program, where walk-ons are considered a valuable component, a player’s capabilities and role aren’t determined by their status. Keeter is another example as to why that’s the case.
“Being a Gainesville guy, I mean, everyone dreams of playing in The Swamp and scoring a touchdown. So, dreams come true,” Keeter said. “The switch has been great. I think I fit really well in the offense.”
Like Zanders, Keeter plans on capitalizing on his impressive spring when the Gators reconvene for preseason camp in August, and that will take devotion to the craft outside of the facility — just as Keeter did over spring break.
“I’m going to get in the offseason and going to get better,” Keeter said, “and learn the scheme of blocking right, pass-catching, so, I’m excited.”