Won't back down: Keith ready to lead Mainland football in 2018
From youth leagues to high school, Taron Keith had always been one of the top players on the teams he’s played on. The sport didn’t matter. Keith excelled in both football and basketball. He was a pure athlete, and he loved to be the one with the ball in his hands with the game on the line. He loved the pressure. It didn’t shut him down, like the moment does to most players. It woke him up. It fueled him.
But Taron Keith didn’t get his “moment” when he transferred to Mainland High School ahead of his sophomore year in 2017. Keith, a native of DeLand, transferred from DeLand High School after a season on the Bulldogs’ junior varsity team. He walked through the halls of Mainland, with numerous athletic accolades glaring down at him, for the first time in January of his freshman year. In the spring, he tried out for football. He played quarterback for the Bulldogs but came to Mainland as a receiver. Coaches tried him out at QB and defensive back before moving him to running back.
The two spots he grew most familiar with? The sideline and the bench.
But although the 2017 season came and went for Keith, he entered spring practice inspired, determined to stake his claim as a leader and a player to be reckoned with on a team accustomed to high-caliber football.
He set his sites on the starting quarterback job, a position left open by graduation. And little was going to stop him from reaching out and taking it.
‘I’VE GOT TO STEP UP TO THE CHALLENGE’
Watching Keith sit on the bench most games did not sit right with Buccaneers head coach Scott Wilson.
Wilson recalls Keith running over 120 yards across the field, making five or six defenders miss on his way to the end zone for a long touchdown run in a game against Pine Ridge on Sept. 15.
Why can’t we get the ball to him more right now? Wilson thought to himself.
He recognized Keith’s talent. He was an explosive, dynamic athlete. He was fast, could make defenders grab for nothing but air. And, he was wise beyond his years. Watching him on the field or at practice, or even just having a conversation with him, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that Keith was 14 years old.
More than his blinding speed, quick moves or muscular frame, it was his mental maturity that stood out most to Wilson.
Multiple times throughout the summer, Keith has called out his own mistakes during film sessions. He’s apologized to his teammates and vowed to get better.
“He’s not afraid to admit when he’s wrong, and a lot of young kids don’t do that,” Wilson said. “He makes mistakes just like anybody. But he’s willing to accept them and take the pressure off of his teammates and put the blame on himself. And when he does mess up, he gets so bothered by it, that I’ve never seen him not fix it.”
And this is why come the Buccaneers’ preseason game against Apopka on Aug. 17, Keith, now nearly two weeks away from his 16th birthday, will start at the most important position on the offense: quarterback.
“When it comes to learning football and being in the classroom, he speaks. Out on the field, he doesn’t say much. He just gets it done because he knows it’s time to work. He’s a leader by example on the field with his work ethic.”
Mainland coach Scott Wilson on Taron Keith
After an efficient performance in the Buccaneers’ spring game, where he completed 11-of-16 passes for 126 yards and ran for a touchdown, Keith beat out Stone Turner for the starting spot, and while Keith settled into his new role with the team, Turner transferred to New Smyrna Beach.
“I knew I wanted to play quarterback, but I knew I was going to have to fight for the position,” Keith said. “I had the mentality knowing that I was going to win the job.”
He worked hard throughout the summer, forming chemistry with his receivers and studying the playbook. His first test as a leader came at the Sling and Shoot 7-on-7 camp on June 9-10 at the University of South Florida.
He threw three interceptions in what Wilson called the Buccaneers’ “weakest performance at the camp ever.”
It didn’t phase him, though. The moment never has.
In the Buccaneers’ next 7-on-7 challenge, Keith led his team to a championship at the University of Central Florida and was the only quarterback out of 30 teams to not throw an interception the entire day.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Keith said. “But I have to deal with it. When times get hard, I can’t back down. I’ve got to step up to the challenge.”
‘I’M GOING TO FEEL LIKE I’M AT HOME’
The Buccaneers will open the 2018 season on Aug. 24. And while the majority of the Buccaneers’ roster won’t get to experience the comfort of playing in front of a home crowd on that day, at least one player will.
Mainland will face DeLand at 7 p.m. that Friday at Spec Martin Municipal Stadium.
“I’m going to feel like I’m at home,” Keith said. “It’s in my stadium that I grew up playing in. I’m going to have some haters. There’s going to be a lot of talking. But it doesn’t phase me. I don’t have no reason to have butterflies.”
When Keith looks across the field toward the opposite sideline, he’ll see his old coaches and teammates. In the stands will be his family and friends, many of whom still bleed Bulldog green and yellow.
But next to him will be the guys he’s led through every drill, practice and scrimmage throughout a hot and grueling summer.
And he’s prepared to lead them through it all.