Mobile, Ala. — Connor Heyward isn’t trying to be the first of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward’s sons to make it to the NFL. That distinction belongs to Cameron, the perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the youngest of four brothers is certainly the closest to directly following in his father’s footsteps.
As a “skinny” high schooler, Connor played wide receiver, quarterback, safety and even punted a little. Recruited to Michigan State as an athlete, he continued to move around, seeing time as wide receiver, running back, and eventually tight end.
But as Connor auditions for future employers at the Senior Bowl this week, there he is, down after down, lining up as the lead back in the I-formation, like dad did for 11 NFL seasons.
But the game has changed since the days of Ironhead. The 260-pound fullbacks have been replaced, surviving the threat of extinction by evolving. Those who play the position these days are 20 pounds lighter, more athletic and, by extension, more versatile.
The younger Heyward fits that mold, with a college resume chock full of examples. He’s not his father, nor has he pretended to be. He’s attempting to carve his own path to the pros, looking to more closely emulate the modern day gold standard at the position, Kyle Juszczyk of the San Francisco 49ers.
“You see him do a lot of different things,” Heyward said. “They’ll have him in 12 personnel (formations with one running back and two tight ends), they’ll have him in 21 personnel (formations with two running backs). He can plug and play anywhere. Just being able to see a guy like that, that’s so versatile, I think we have a lot of similarities in our games.”
Paired with the Detroit Lions coaching staff in Mobile is a blessing for Heyward. The team’s coaching staff has an affinity for the fullback position and worked diligently during the season to incorporate their own lead back, Jason Cabinda, into each week’s game plan.
“We’re doing a lot of fullback stuff, so the more I’m out there, the better, just to put that much more tape out there,” Heyward said. “A lot of teams are trying to get back to that fullback, have that fullback on the roster, or an h-back, because you can do so much with them and you can always keep the defense on their toes.”
While prospective employers at the next level are continuing to evaluate Heyward’s potential fit for their roster, there will be few concerns about his attitude and approach.
Going from starting running back to supporting cast member with the Spartans, Heyward reconsidered transferring and proved he was more interested in being on the field than getting the ball. He takes great joy playing a role in Kenneth Walker’s outstanding 2021 campaign and Heyward also has an affinity for special teams, similarly serving as a lead blocker on kickoffs the past couple seasons, while helping with protection and alignments in punt formations.
“I just want to be on the field, at the end of the day,” Heyward said. “That’s always been my mentality. It doesn’t matter whether I’m getting the ball or not, I just want to impact the game somehow.”