EAST LANSING – At that time, two years ago, Connor Heyward was a player without a team.
The Michigan state running back entered his name on the transfer portal and was looking for a new schedule. He’s only been playing tight end / fullback H for a few months and will try his luck in the NFL.
The Senior Bowl announced Monday that Heyward has accepted an invitation to play in the All-Star Game before the NFL Draft.
“This is an incredible opportunity that I can’t pass up,” Heyward said on Tuesday, “and I don’t think a lot of people would pass it up.”
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Heyward said he got the invite two or three weeks ago, but kept it a secret because he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with another remaining eligibility season. However, after five years in East Lansing, this is it. He’s heading to his final game at Spartan Stadium when the Michigan State No.12 (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) hosts Penn State on Saturday.
“It’s bittersweet,” Heyward said. “I’ve been in college for five years now, I think it’s time for me to move on. I think I have done a lot for this program. It’s been an incredible roller coaster – the ups and downs, everything. It’s just amazing and I think I’m ready for this next chapter of my life.
“Without the guys in the team room and the guys that I will train with every day and the guys that I go out and compete with on match days and the coaches, this opportunity wouldn’t be possible without them. I’m just glad they pushed me to be a better football player and a better person. In the end, I think they got me to this point.
After leading the state of Michigan in a rush in 2018, Heyward lost his starting job to Elijah Collins early next season, leading him to step into the portal. He visited other schools but didn’t feel his time with the Spartans was over. Following the retirement of coach Mark Dantonio in February 2020, Heyward spoke to new coach Mel Tucker, removed his name from the portal and started six of seven games in the backfield last year.
Heyward has spent four seasons racing, but the outlook for this room has changed with the addition of Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III, who is now second in the country for the race and a Heisman Trophy contender.
Running backs coach William Peagler discussed the potential change in stance during fall camp with tight ends coach Ted Gilmore, then reached offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. It didn’t take long for there to be full engagement and it started with Heyward admitting that the running back wasn’t the best fit and accepting a change.
“I saw it as a positive thing,” Heyward said. “I knew that at the next level, to have a chance, I was going to have to make a transition. I’m glad I made the transition at that point and I think it was the right time.
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Heyward, a former all-rounder at Peachtree Ridge High School in Ga., Quickly adapted to the tight end / H-back. He had remarkable plays – both receiving and blocking – and had made 26 catches for 229 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s great to have him in the tight end position and the back H position,” said quarterback Payton Thorne. Obviously he moved there very late in the offseason and he figured it out really quickly and he’s a really good athlete. He helped us a lot, he made a lot of good games. He’s a physical player, so he sets the tone.
Heyward has strong hands, embraces contact, and is a willful blocker. He also has an impressive pedigree as the son of the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, an outstanding former fullback in Pittsburgh and the NFL, and brother of Cameron Heyward, an All-Pro defensive lineman for the Steelers. But, at 6-0-0, 230 pounds, he doesn’t have the length of a typical NFL tight end and expects his outlook to change depending on the team.
“It’s a new job and every day I’m still learning,” Heyward said. “I know that at the next level I will be used a little differently. I know there will be bigger guys in the three point position. I really won’t do that – if asked, so much the better. In the NFL at this higher level you have to be able to play any position they want you to play and be able to play anywhere on the court and be able to do your job and be reliable. . I think I’ll be able to do it if I keep working on my craft and stay locked up. “
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Heyward feels more comfortable in his role and as a person, which has taken him to the next level. It also doesn’t hurt Tucker, who spent a decade coaching in the NFL, was ready to embrace NFL scouts and said they participate in the program on a daily basis.
“Having a coach who’s been there he knows how everything works, which is amazing,” Heyward said. “It just shows you how everything is supposed to be done. It really gives you more confidence because he really knows what’s going on and he knows how to talk to them. He will call us to his office to have these conversations because he is not naive of what is going on. Just being able to have this open door policy with him and with the scouts just helped everyone and I think it helped everyone’s stock. “
Heyward is the first Michigan state player to accept an invitation to the Senior Bowl and there may be more in the Feb. 5 game in Mobile, Alabama. There could also be other eligible Spartans leaving for the draft. Walker tops the list while wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are both red-shirted juniors who have played a lot of football and been very productive.
“I can’t wait to see what decisions the guys go forward and I know the guys will do what’s best for them,” Heyward said. “Some guys will come back, some will leave but I know… whatever they do, Michigan State will be in a great place with Coach Tucker running this program.”
Heyward’s transition from a running back whose output (3.9 yards average on 210 career carries) has drawn criticism from fans to a tight end with a chance to play in the NFL is one of the best stories from a team that has also defied the odds this season. He will be among the seniors honored on Saturday when he enters the Spartan Stadium for the last time.
“It’s crazy, this is senior night,” Heyward said. “This season kind of went fast and it went fast because we were having such a good year and hopefully we can finish with 10 wins before the bowl game.”
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