Keeler enjoying WVU football experience

Mark Martin
In 2018, Viking senior Cayden Keeler, No. 65, put in his time on the field as he's seen here attempting to block his Princeton opponents.

Some college football conferences around the country have already pulled the plug on their upcoming 2020 seasons.

Power Five leagues such as the Big 12, in which West Virginia University is a member, have not. Though the Big 10 and PAC-12 have already announced they will play conference games only.

While he admits it is unlikely playing time will be coming his way this upcoming season, Ripley High graduate Cayden Keeler is hopeful the Mountaineers of second-year head coach Neal Brown will be competing.

A season of 2020 would allow for the former Class AAA First Team All-Stater’s progression as a college football player to continue.

Keeler, who starred for Eddie Smolder’s Vikings and helped Ripley to the second round of the Class AAA playoffs in 2018, is listed as a redshirt defensive tackle for the Mountaineers.

Keeler is still a walk-on with the Mountaineer football program but says with each passing day he feels more and more comfortable adapting to big-time Division I college football.

“I’m really enjoying it,” Keeler said on a recent visit back home to Jackson County. “I struggled a bit early on when I went there. It was tough at first. I struggled with it. I wasn’t really enjoying it.

“I didn’t know anyone. But I’ve started to build relationships. I’m having fun and enjoying it.”

As a down lineman in the “three-technique,” Keeler works under assistant coach Jordan Lesley.

“He’s a genius. He does everything the right way,” said Keeler.

Each day, Lesley is one of the guys Keeler must impress if at some point he wants to change his status from walk-on to scholarship.

“That’s the goal to get on scholarship. They talk to the walk-ons a lot about what it will take. It’s going to be challenging.”

Keeler, though, is up to the challenge.

“That’s the plan," he said on having football help pay his way through school. "I try not to worry about it. Just work hard and do what I’m told to do."

As a defensive lineman, Keeler gets to work alongside of standout Darius Stills, who was recently named the Big 12 Conference’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

“That’s pretty cool,” Keeler said of his teammate, who is from Fairmont. “Darius is awesome. What separates how good he is on the field is what he is off the field. When it comes to older guys, he's helped me out and is teaching me stuff.”

Stills’ younger brother, Dante, is another Mountaineer defensive line standout. Their father, Gary, is a former Mountaineer great who went on to play in the National Football League.

“They both know how to play some football,” Keeler said of the Fairmont brother duo.

While he works directly under Lesley, Keeler has been impressed with Brown as WVU’s football leader.

“He’s a good dude. I think he coaches the right way, by the book. Discipline is his main staple when I think of him.”

Keeler was all set to attend the University of Charleston and play for the Division II Golden Eagles before turning down scholarship money at the last second for the chance to attend WVU and walk-on the Mountaineer program.

“I felt bad,” he said of pulling out late to make the move to WVU. “But, it’s a decision I had to make. I’m 100 percent committed to WVU. I haven’t regretted my decision.”

Another coach in the WVU program Keeler has high praise for is Mike Joseph, who oversees the strength and conditioning phase of Mountaineer football.

“Coach Mike is maybe the most real person I’ve met in my life. He holds us to a high standard, doing everything the correct way,” Keeler said. “He cares about everyone of his players. He’s invested in you. He’s always trying to do everything to make everybody better and as great as he can be.”

He’s counting on Joseph to steadily transform his body the right way into becoming the 275-pounder he will need to be to compete on the D-line. Keeler's weight has fluctuated from 256 to 280 since going to Morgantown.

Keeler loves keeping up with his former team – the Ripley Vikings, who will be under new leadership this season as Steve Sayre takes over for Eddie Smolder.

The former Ripley High Athlete of the Year hated to see Smolder leave the program. The two have a special bond.

He is, however, happy to see Sayre chosen as the one to take over.

“He’s one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever been coached by.”

Keeler, a sports management major, says he earned a 3.0 GPA at the end of second semester. “It feel good to finish on good terms. My GPA is only going to go up in the future.”

And as far as football is concerned, he knows the Mountaineer journey is a marathon not a sprint.

With so many things up in the air pertaining to this college football season, Keeler says he just plans to keep working to achieve his ultimate goal.

“I’m just doing anything I can do to get on the field.”

Eventually, Cayden Keeler will.