The Tale of Kansas’s Jake Heaps, And Why There’s More to Come

Jake Heaps KansasAfter setting BYU passing records as a freshman and showing promise in his first season with 2316 yards and 15 TDs passing, Jake Heaps has dealt with a great deal of adversity. Being the top rated quarterback prospect coming out of high school, where he led his team to two consecutive state titles and two undefeated seasons, Heaps came to BYU with high expectations and a letdown sophomore campaign led to his decision to transfer.

Now at Kansas, Heaps hopes to regain the promise he once showed early in his football career.

Success Unsustained
While there was plenty of blame to be placed on the rest of the offense and his first year offensive coordinator Brandon Dorman, Heaps fell into bad habits under duress –drifting from interior pressure, falling away from throws and forcing the ball into closed windows. On a less than stellar team, Heaps simply tried to do too much and turned the ball over as a result. 

The skill set, mental makeup and drive all remained present, but a short leash put the brake lights on Heaps’ career at BYU. With 5 interceptions in the team’s first 4 games and an inefficient first half versus rival Utah State, Heaps was sent to the bench for the remainder of the year. The shocking part about the entire situation was how a coaching staff could be so quick to give up on a top-flight recruit that had shown promise as a true freshman starter. From quotes and interviews with players and coaches, you got the sense that the BYU football team responded to and respected backup Riley Nelson more than the talented Heaps.

Then-starter at offensive guard, Houston Reynolds told The Salt Lake Tribune “Riley is a fighter… He’s committed. When you know that guys are committed, you fight for them.” Clearly a subliminal message directed at Heaps, the only trait that seemed to keep Heaps from continuing his development at BYU may have in fact been a lack of innate leadership. Whether that was the case or not remains to be seen, but NFL scouts and personnel directors will be questioning Heaps’ former coaches for more on his leadership qualities and ability to handle high expectations, immediate success and subsequent adversity.

The Importance of Leadership
Recently I tuned into my local ESPN radio station (ESPNDallas 103.3) and had the opportunity to hear former Philadelphia Eagles Director of Pro Personnel Louis Riddick breakdown the three major components of leadership at the quarterback position. First and foremost, Riddick stated that credibility is a non-negotiable as a the quarterback and leader of an NFL locker room. While some are motivators and some are actions-based leaders, a quarterback must have the trust of his teammates. From there, competency came as the second component of leadership, where the respect of teammates plays a vital role in winning over the locker room. Finally, the last component of leadership is having an impact on everyone from coaches to players.

While I haven’t met Jake Heaps or directly spoken with any coaches from the 2011 BYU staff, it’s become evident that Heaps’ development from a mental makeup standpoint will serve as the catalyst for his NFL future. From my understanding, Heaps, who entered BYU with a ton of hype out of high school, met expectations as a freshman with great success but was unable to solidify himself as a leader within the locker room.  Very understandable for a true freshman entering his sophomore season, Heaps’ youthfulness arguably played the largest role in his inability to win over his teammates. BYU’s starting offense in 2011 had 5 senior starters and 3 more junior starters.

Defensively, the team started 6 seniors to go along with 4 junior starters. The thought of following the lead of a hot shot, future NFL quarterback may not be on the personal agenda of those 18 upperclassmen starters, and backup Riley Nelson’s humility as a non-NFL prospect, work ethic and scrapper mentality likely appealed to the team’s makeup. In this instance, you truly see how important team chemistry is within a locker room and how important it is for quarterbacks to “earn their stripes” before establishing themselves as team leaders. There may have been a bit of complacency with Heaps or self-entitlement that played a part; however, the fact remains that he was unable to sustain his immediate success. With all that in mind, it’s important to realize that this isn’t the end of Jake Heaps’ story.

The Turnaround
Once his sophomore season came to a close, Heaps had already made his intentions clear to the coaching staff that he would indeed transfer. Choosing Kansas as his destination for the sole reason of having Charlie Weis as his mentor and head coach, Heaps packed his bags for a move to the Big 12. Under NCAA transfer rules, Heaps had to sit out the entire 2012 season, which ultimately should serve as the greatest blessing in his football career to date.

During the time off, Heaps devoted himself towards the goal of winning over his teammates through hard work in the practice facilities, on the field, in the weight room and in the film room. Connecting with the rest of his team by showing a mature, poised and dedicated work ethic geared for success, it seems Heap has turned the corner.  Sports reporter Matt Tait, who covers KU football for the Lawrence Journal-World, said, “When the offseason hit – I’m talking day one of their final game of last season – he [Heaps] just elevated himself and emerged as the unquestioned leader… This guy is definitely the leader of this team.” Now that paints a picture quite differently than the one of Heaps in Provo, Utah. There he was only a talented, immature kid that struggled with inconsistency….

Now 22 years of age, married, and having gone through a difficult transfer and redshirt season, Heaps has emerged a different quarterback for the Kansas Jayhawks. According to his current quarterback coach, Ron Powlus, Heaps wants to be great and is doing everything he can to maximize his talent. Powlus told KU Athletics in an interview during spring ball, “Jake hates to do things wrong and that’s great, because so many times you’re pushing guys to raise their expectations for themselves and you don’t have to do that with Jake.” Powlus went on to praise Heaps’ ability to control the football and throw with efficiency, as well as his overall skill set as a pocket passer.

2013 Season Outlook and Scouting Update
Spinning the action to the 2013 season, Heaps’ time on the scout team was spent wisely, as he developed great chemistry with Oklahoma-transfer Justin McCay. McCay, who had his own issues with breaking into the depth chart for the Sooners, brings plus size and athleticism to the forefront as the Jayhawks’ primary outside wide receiver. In interviews with Kansas media, Heaps stated how his relationship with Justin grew both on the practice field and off the field, where the two remain in constant dialogue. On how the two’s chemistry translates to gameday, Heaps said “When you have great communication, you’re able to go out there and talk with each other, and adapt on the field.”

In discussing the team’s passing attack, Heaps and the rest of the coaching staff have repeatedly brought up the name Tony Pierson. Although Pierson was an outstanding running back for the Jayhawks in 2012, he will be fulfilling more of a versatile role with the offense in the upcoming season. Placed in the slot receiver position and compared to Tavon Austin by his head coach Charlie Weis, Pierson should be a tough matchup for opposing defenses and his ability to create after the catch will pique the interest of NFL scouts. Heaps has furthermore expressed confidence in his receivers Christian Matthews and Josh Ford, as well as his starting tight end Jimmay Mundine (who he routinely golfs with –albeit unsuccessfully).

As a quarterback, Heaps lacks great height but compensates with efficient footwork, an elevated release point and consistency from a delivery standpoint. Crisp in his pass drops from center or shotgun, Heaps clearly has a developed skill set from a mechanics standpoint and won’t require much tinkering in that aspect. The ball comes out with zip and velocity when required, and you see a natural ability to control the football with velocity and trajectory. Heaps has a live arm and can make all the throws, and more importantly can drop in bucket throws downfield with touch. Equally refined with his mechanics on the roll, Heaps is accurate while on the move to either side of the field and does an excellent job of progressing through his reads even when pressured. Confident in his reads and able to get to second or third options, Heaps showcased a high level of decisiveness and control of the game even as a young player. Overall, I was left with a positive impression of a skilled passer that had a high understanding of the game.

Where he’ll have to improve as a prospect is in the way he handles interior pressure, and more importantly how he reacts to initial adversity. In viewing a handful of 2011 games, I saw Heaps drift away from the first sign of pressure and he’ll have to improve his overall toughness within the pocket. The pressure he faced behind BYU’s offensive line in the Mountain West Conference won’t disappear at Kansas, where he’ll be facing much faster and explosive defenses that can get after the quarterback. Finally, barring a miracle undefeated season, Heaps will be faced with adversity in 2013. How he handles losses and how he bounces back from defeat will go a long way in explaining his growth as a person, leader and teammate.

Ultimately, Heaps is a skilled prospect with refined tools and a mind for the game. While his intense recruitment, immediate success and subsequent failings in Provo, Utah are concerning for evaluators, his actions at Kansas have shown a much more mature individual that’s developed into a true, team leader. Keep an eye on Heaps in 2013, as he’s a legitimate quarterback prospect at the next level.