MSU's Connor Heyward could've left; on Pro Day, he's sure glad he didn't

Nolan Bianchi
Special to The Detroit News

East Lansing — Connor Heyward had options.

With soon-to-be Heisman Trophy contender and eventual Doak Walker Award winner Kenneth Walker enrolling at Michigan State to take the job that Heyward desired, he considered all of them.

He was eligible to be a graduate transfer, after all, and there was a thought that perhaps an opportunity elsewhere could be what Heyward needed to draw eyes on him before entering the NFL Draft.

MSU tight end Connor Heyward (11).

Talking after Michigan State’s Pro Day on Wednesday, Heyward said he’s glad the option he wound up pursuing remained in East Lansing. Still, when he wound up coming back for a fifth season, he didn’t foresee that he’d be working out for NFL teams as a tight end and running back.

“That just goes to show you that coach (Mel Tucker) and the whole staff knows how to evaluate guys’ skillsets,” Heyward said. “They saw something in me, and I just wanted to be a team player and be out on the field. Luckily, everything worked out.”

Not only did it work out, but it also developed a sense of maturity that’s prepared him for what he’s about to face at the next level, where he'll be ready to play wherever. Only this time, the shoe will be on the other foot.

“When I first met coach Tucker, he said the best player is going to play. That’s the NFL mindset. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old guy, young guy, the best player is going to play,” Heyward said.

Heyward, the son of former 11-year NFL pro Craig Hewyard and the younger brother of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, rushed for 529 yards and five touchdowns during his sophomore season in 2018. One would figure that production would grow overtime.

Life doesn’t always work out that way — but that's helped him realize that all it really means is that there are more options to get his foot in the door for an NFL job.

“Just because you had a good year last year ... you have to come back and prove yourself because everybody else is going to try to work on their craft and beat you out," Heyward said. 

"Some teams are thinking H-back, some are thinking fullback ... and then obviously special teams. I know that's a critical way to keep your job in the league or take somebody's job."

Heyward said he's most comfortable with pass-catching when it comes to the different aspects of a tight end's role.

In Wednesday's Pro Day, Heyward did running-back drills alongside Walker, ran routes alongside receiver prospect Jalen Nailor, and ran through a number of blocking drills that would seem to indicate some teams are indeed interested in using him in a variety of ways.

Walker and Heyward have been training together in Pensacola, Florida, for the last few weeks — a fitting end to their college careers, given that Walker said Wednesday that Heyward was the first person he hung out with when arriving on campus.

"He helped me with everything, on and off the field, when I got here, even when he went to tight end, he would always help me," Walker said. "That's a lot of guys here. It just shows how they are — so supportive. That means a lot to me."

Nailor's decision

Nailor said Wednesday the decision to depart early from Michigan State wasn't any easy one, but that injuries during his first three years with the Spartans played a major factor in deciding to turn pro.

"Definitely, it played a factor for sure," Nailor said. "Just trying to be as healthy as possible. Three out of the four years I've been hurt, so I'm just taking a chance on myself."

Nailor played just six games his freshman year in 2018, four games in 2019 and nine games during Michigan State's 11-2 season in 2021. He caught 37 passes for 695 yards.

Nailor added that he was surprised by the decision of fellow receiver Jayden Reed to return to school.

Reed was a first-team All-American, first-team All-Big Ten, and Paul Horning Award finalist. Reed caught 59 passes for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns during the 2021 season.

"I was surprised when he decided to come back, but he had to do what's best for him," Nailor said.

Blessed to impress

A handful of Michigan State players impressed during the measurable portion of the pro day, specifically offensive lineman A.J. Arcuri and defensive lineman Drew Beesley.

Arcuri, at 6-foot-7, 320-pounder recorded the best vertical (33.5 inches) among 11 other participants. Drew Beesley, meanwhile, blew away the competition on the bench, putting up 33 reps. 

"Just like my athletic ability," Arcuri said when asked what he was most looking forward to showing scouts on Tuesday. "It was definitely nice to start with (the vertical), you know, get a little bit of momentum going into every other test."

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.