New MSU returner Heyward delivers pop like Pop
East Lansing — When Connor Heyward raced up the sideline Saturday at Minnesota during a first-half kick return, his path to the end zone was quickly closing.
Minnesota kicker Ryan Santoso had the angle and there was nowhere for Heyward to go.
So, like any member of his family would do, the Michigan State freshman put his shoulder down and sent Santoso flying backward as the two tumbled out of bounds, the defender getting the worse of the confrontation.
“Once I saw him about 10 yards away I was like, ‘there’s nowhere to go,’ and in the running backs room Coach (Dave) Warner always talks about being tough and not just going out and running out of bounds and really delivering a punch on the guy,” Heyward said this week. “My dad, I know he’s looking down on me and I know he would have run the guy over, so why not?
“But we’re two different backs, two different people and have two different types of games in a way, but I have traits that are pretty similar.”
Dad, of course, is former NFL Pro Bowler Craig Heyward, who spent 11 years in the NFL and ran for 4,301 yards in his career. And it was his bruising style that stood out. At roughly 265 pounds, “Ironhead” Heyward made a career out of punishing defenders.
Craig Heyward died in 2006 from brain cancer when Connor was just 7, but the youngest of Craig Heyward’s four sons knows exactly what kind of player his dad was and sees some of that in himself.
“We’re both physical backs,” Connor Heyward said. “He was way more physical than me, but I think we both have our vision and football awareness.”
Connor Heyward calls himself a back, and that’s exactly the spot he’s been playing as a freshman. He did it all at Peachtree High in Duluth, Ga., playing quarterback, receiver, running back, safety and punter.
But running back has been his spot with the Spartans, and while there’s plenty of depth with fifth-year senior Gerald Holmes and juniors LJ Scott and Madre London ahead of Heyward, the freshman is getting his chance to make an impact on special teams, taking over last week on both punt and kick returns.
It was the first chance for Heyward in each role, and while the punt returning wasn’t great, he stood out on the kick returns. In addition to the 37-yard return he had that ended with the hit on the Minnesota kicker, Heyward returned another kick 55 yards in the fourth quarter to set up Michigan State’s final touchdown.
He doesn’t look like the typical returner, small and quick. At 6-foot and nearly 200 pounds, he’s built for running people over. But he’s also proven to have the proper instinct.
“You’ve got to follow your blockers and we’ve been practicing it every day,” Heyward said. “I think everybody knows who to block and when to block them, and we just have to do everything correctly. Without the blockers I wouldn’t be able to do it, and it takes a lot. You can’t just go out there and run, you gotta know where to run, have a sense for it and have a little bit of patience.”
Michigan State has tried others this season as sophomore receiver Darrell Stewart has handled both punts and kicks while freshman Laress Nelson has had a shot at punts and freshman Andre Welch got a crack at returning kicks.
None have reminded coach Mark Dantonio of Keshawn Martin, the last explosive return man the Spartans have had. But he’s hoping Heyward keeps rolling.
“Keshawn Martin is one of the greatest, I think,” Dantonio said. “He was tremendous as a punt returner, kick returner for us. I’m not ready to bring into that realm yet, OK? But I thought we got some good production from Connor Heyward last week. We’ll see if that continues. We’re hopeful that it will.”
Heyward is happy to get the shot, and odds are he won’t be running away from defenders anytime soon, but running through them.
“They’ve given me an opportunity,” he said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”