Coming out of high school as a spindly 200-pounder and three-star athlete, to label newly-drafted Pittsburgh Steeler Connor Heyward as a can’t miss prospect is an understatement. However, the younger brother of multi-time All-Pro defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and son of legendary Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, possessed that same hardworking, lunch-pail approach that his last name denotes.
However, he credits a position change early on during his tenure as a Michigan State Spartan the turning point, and in hindsight, realizes that without that, he might not be in sitting here today as an NFL draftee.
“I came in as an athlete my freshman year, and Coach Dantonio recruited me,” Heyward said, via a transcript provided by the team. “He thought I was just an offensive guy, anywhere on offense, or outside linebacker on defense. They tried me out on offense and that worked out. Then when Coach Tucker came in, Coach Peagler was my running back coach, he was a tight end coach at Florida. He suggested it to the staff, and two weeks before the season, I switched into their hybrid role, tight end and H-back role and I’m glad I did. I don’t think I would be in this position if I didn’t.”
After biding his time on the depth chart while in East Lansing, Connor’s game reached new heights during the 2019 season, when he was voted a finalist for the Paul Horning Award, given annually to the nation’s most versatile player. He led the team that season with 529 yards on the ground, 249 through the air while also averaging 22.1 yards via kick returns.
After Dantonio left the program, Heyward entered the transfer portal in 2020 but the hiring of new coach Mel Tucker changed his tune. That’s when he devoted his jack-of-all trades skill set to one specific position. It ultimately paid dividends this past season, when he was voted honorable mention All-Big Ten Conference honors, posting 35 grabs for 326 yards and and two touchdowns. However, it’s clear by the comments made by coach Tomlin earlier today at the team post-draft presser that they value his “Swiss Army Knife” capabilities.
For me personally, Connor was on my radar simply as a Steelers fan. Early last season, I heard an announcer make the correlation between he and Cam. However, I knew he had potential at the next level after witnessing his performance in the Spartans’ 31-21 victory over a Kenny Pickett-less Pitt team in the Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl. He posted one carry for seven yards but made his hay through the air, snaring five catches for 37 yards and one touchdown.
At slightly under 6-feet tall and 233 pounds, he’s far from the prototypical tight end which we see in the NFL landscape today. However, it’s clear his skillset casts a wide net, which obviously was something the team valued. It’s also not hard to envision Tomlin, outgoing GM Kevin Colbert and company having behind-the-scenes conversations with big brother Cam about Connor. However, it’s clear that Connor values Cam as more than just a brother. And if nothing less, it’ll make the return to St. Vincent College in Latrobe this summer that much more must-see.
“He’s been a big brother, but more of a father figure,” Connor said. “I mean, I can take the tough love. I’m kind of expecting it to come into camp, but it makes the experience that much more fun.”