Positional switches happen all the time in college football. A quarterback goes to a wide receiver, a defensive end goes to linebacker, a safety goes to cornerback. Redshirt senior Tyler Hunt went from being a walk-on punter in 2017 to the team’s second-leading tight end in 2020 with 78 yards.
One that somewhat caught people off guard this offseason was the transition of redshirt senior Connor Heyward from running back to tight end. Coaches mentioned it and reporters even saw it during fall camp, but there was no real telling of how true it would be that Heyward would be playing tight end in 2021 and not his original position of running back.
All it took was one game, a 38-21 win over Northwestern, to bring truth to those rumors. In fact, it took the first play of the game for Heyward to establish himself as an impact tight end. Still sporting No. 11, Heyward made a key block on the first snap of the game, the one junior running back Kenneth Walker III took 75-yards to the house.
“I knew I was responsible for the defensive end,” Heyward said Wednesday. “He squeezed down, and Kenneth (Walker III), the running back, has to make a right and he did make a right. He made a good cut off me and (Jayden) Reed does a good job on the perimeter and Kenneth does what he does. He’s up the sideline.
Then on the very next drive, Heyward continued to make highlight plays. He started the drive out with a diving catch for 16 yards and a first down, followed by a catch on 3rd and seven where Heyward fought and fell forward just past the first down marker to keep the drive alive. He ended the drive with a solid block on the edge to allow Walker to walk into the end zone untouched from three yards out.
Heyward came to Michigan State in 2017 and played mostly as a kick returner his freshman year. In 2018, he led the Spartans in rushing with 529 yards before redshirting in 2019 playing in just four games and entering the transfer portal before eventually deciding to return to MSU in 2020.
Last year, the entire running game was a wreck, prompting changes to be made such as bringing in Walker from Wake Forest and moving Heyward to tight end.
While at first glance it looks like it was a smooth transition from running back to tight end for the six-foot, 230-pound redshirt senior, it was not an easy one. Heyward said he worked for about three hours a day during the offseason in order to learn the new position and to avoid sitting on the bench come gameday.
“Nothing is natural when learning football,” Heyward said. “You can always have a natural feel for football, but I honestly had to come in extra and push myself to learn. Rooming with Anthony Russo, that’s helped because he has helped me with the pass concepts. I would draw on a whiteboard, stuff like that. With the run game, I would come in with coach Ruff [Offensive analyst Nick Ruffing] and just honestly ask him a million questions and bounce ideas off his head. To this day, I still come in everyday and meet with him because there is always room for improvement.”
With his experience at running back, as well as the four other positions he played at Peachtree Ridge High School in Georgia, Heyward said it helped him with his transition, especially from a communication standpoint in pass protection.
“I know what their responsibilities are and what my responsibilities are, so I can look back and give them the sign or communicate with them so that we are on the same page,” Heyward said.
After Friday’s game, Walker gave credit to Heyward for being unselfish and a leader on the team, saying that Heyward has given him points and tips on the position as he adjusted to his new home at MSU. Heyward confirmed that Wednesday saying that Walker randomly gives him phone calls at night asking questions whether football-related and not.
“Being able to help him and him help me, it’s been a pleasure,” Heyward said. “Whenever he needs me I am always there for him and that goes along with anybody.”
With numerous other transfers on the team, leadership and relationships like the one between Heyward and Walker are a necessity for the team’s success. Not only has Heyward had to focus on himself, but he has also taken it upon himself from Head Coach Mel Tucker’s advice for everyone to be a vocal leader, regardless of age, experience or position.
Those results showed Friday night in Evanston. Despite all the new faces, Michigan State soared last Friday. The chemistry, confidence and swagger were all there, something that had not been seen in a long time.
“No one even looks at the transfers different, no one looks at the young guys,” Heyward said. “I’d take my shirt off my back for anybody on the team and I feel like everybody else would do that for me and the other guys on the team. I just feel like there’s a special bond. My position, my role is different, but I want to help the team and I am just excited about doing that.”
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