Editor's note: Second in an occasional series exploring the pros and cons of starting a true freshman at quarterback, and the experiences of the six freshmen who started for BYU.
PROVO — Perhaps no BYU athlete has ever had a bigger target on his back than former five-star prospect Jake Heaps.
Touted as one of the top high school quarterbacks in the nation in 2009, the Issaquah, Washington, native became the third true freshman — and one of only two teenagers (he was 19) — to start at quarterback at BYU nearly a decade ago.
The hype that shrouded him before he even enrolled, and the drama that transpired during his time in Provo, made him one of the most misunderstood athletes to wear Cougar blue.
Heaps never fulfilled the expectations he had for himself, and that others had for him, during his career. He transferred from BYU after his sophomore season in the wake of losing his starting job and then spent stints at Kansas and Miami (Florida) before joining a couple of NFL practice squads.
Now, Heaps, who lives in the Seattle area, is part of the Elite 11 coaching staff and has teamed up with Seattle Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson in a business — The Russell Wilson Passing Academy — that helps young QBs. Heaps will be returning to Utah June 4-5 with a camp that will be held at Taylorsville High.
He shares his story, and his experiences, as a way to help kids prepare for the college experience, avoid some of the mistakes he made, and achieve their dreams.
“The biggest thing is, people want to say that you live life with regret. To me, there are learning lessons. Regret is not giving forth your best effort, looking in the mirror and knowing I didn’t give my best,” Heaps said. “There are things I could have done better as a football player — decisions that I made that I could have done better. I could have done things that could have made things different. There are a lot of external factors that shaped my BYU career as well.
"I’ve gone through this whole journey trying to learn and grow," Heaps continued. "I’m a big believer in that God has a plan. This definitely wasn’t part of my plan. I wanted to have a great career at BYU and go to the NFL. Those were all of the things I envisioned for myself. All I know is that I’ve gone through three great universities. I’ve learned so much, I've met so many people. There’s so many cool stories along the way that have impacted my wife and I. It’s been a journey that I’ve learned from and continued to grow from. Now I’m able to share those experiences with those kids I train and work with. I’m just trying to impact the next generation.”
The ill-fated Iggy’s experience
Heaps ended his heated recruitment (he received dozens of offers from some of the most prestigious schools in the nation) by holding a press conference, with two other BYU recruits, at Iggy’s Sports Grill in Salt Lake City in June 2009.
He unwittingly opened himself up to ridicule by holding the press conference. His intentions, he said, were misconstrued.
“I’m a very low-key guy. I really don’t like doing those things at all. Contrary to belief, I don’t,” he said. “My style and what I wish I would have done is picked up the phone and called (a reporter) and told him, ‘I’m committing to BYU’ and made it low-key. That’s my personality.”
The next day, Heaps, wide receiver Ross Apo and linebacker Zac Stout, who also committed to BYU at Iggy’s, went to BYU’s Junior Day to try to persuade other highly touted players to commit to the Cougars, too.
How that press conference was perceived is “one of the things in my football career that might frustrate me the most," Heaps said. " ... I fully understand where people are coming from. People want to take that as a sign of my arrogance or something like that as a kid. I was 18 years old at the time.
"What I want people to understand about that was, my intention wasn’t even close about making this a big-time thing for myself. I was trying, in my own mind, to make something big and cool for BYU. I was trying to make a statement. I wasn’t trying to proclaim how great I was. It was my idea, going, 'Hey, I want to bring the three biggest recruits BYU has in this class and I want to commit with them and make a splash.'”
Before the press conference, Heaps said he talked to the BYU coaching staff and asked if they would be OK with him announcing where he would be attending college.
“They were all for it,” he said. “I understand. I see it and I get why people poke fun at it. What really irks me is nobody understood the reason behind it and why I was doing it.”
Some of the stigmas about Heaps never really went away, at least in Utah, especially when his career didn’t meet the lofty expectations.
The BYU quarterback battle
Heaps enrolled early at BYU in January 2010 after finishing his high school coursework early. Suddenly he found himself with teammates, including returned missionaries, who were much older than he was. And for the first time in his life, he was locked in a quarterback battle — with junior Riley Nelson.
“Riley and myself were getting half of the reps that a normal starting quarterback would get in that situation. Riley would go in and there would be a set offense for him. I would go in and there would be a set offense for me. It was difficult for our offensive group,” Heaps said. “I had always been the guy, so that was a different situation for me. At the time, when you look at the climate of the situation, I don’t think the situation itself was all that great.
"Everyone was trying to compare me and Riley, our personalities. It almost became the local kid versus the highly touted, five-star prima donna kid. It pitted us against each other a little bit — in the locker room, in the media and all of that. That was tough for me to navigate and learn how to do that.”
Nelson was named the starter but he and Heaps alternated series in the season-opener at home against Washington — the school Heaps would have chosen had he not gone to BYU and his favorite team as a kid.
When Nelson suffered a season-ending injury in the third game of the season at Florida State, Heaps took over in a 34-10 loss.
“It was extremely exciting. I was stoked. It was something I had wanted the whole time. I was looking forward to that,” Heaps said of being thrust into the role of No. 1 quarterback. “Florida State was a pretty good team and I got the crap kicked out of me in that game. It was a good wake-up call to college football. I threw my first touchdown pass in that game. There were a lot of cool ups-and-downs through that whole season. For me, it was a ton of learning and growing and figuring the whole thing out.”
Becoming the starter
The following week, Heaps got his first start, at home, against quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Nevada. The Cougars fell again, 27-13.
“It was hard walking away from a loss thinking, ‘I could have done better for my team.’ Those are things that you learn and grow from,” Heaps said. “I had been 40-2 as a starter in high school, barely ever lost. It was a new challenge. It was a lot of fun but there was a lot of challenges and a lot I had to learn through that whole process.”
Then the Cougars lost to Utah State and coach Bronco Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill. Changes on the defensive side of the ball and Heaps’ development at quarterback helped BYU win six of its final eight games.
In the regular-season finale at Utah, Heaps drove BYU inside the Utah 30-yard line in the final minute. The Cougars decided to settle for a 42-yard, potential game-winning field goal that was blocked in a 17-16 setback.
But the Cougars rebounded by crushing UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl, 52-24.
“You look at my development over the course of that season, and not to mention that we were rotating two completely different offenses," Heaps said. "When Riley got hurt and I became the full-on starter, it really took a couple of weeks for us as a group to get in sync and for me to get comfortable and get my feet wet.
"There were a lot of growing pains in those first couple of games. I look back at those games and I think, ‘We should have won those.’ For myself, I was trying to get those reps. I was learning, every single rep. By the midpoint of the season, things started taking off. That was a fun part of the year. We overcame all that and we capped it off with a great end to the year.”
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae resigned shortly after the bowl game and Mendenhall promoted Brandon Doman, who was the one who recruited Heaps to BYU, from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator.
At the time, everything seemed to be going Heaps’ way. But he underwent a medical procedure that winter and missed much of the winter workouts. He returned in time to participate in spring drills.
Between his freshman and sophomore seasons at BYU, he married his wife, Brooke. Meanwhile, his parents got divorced.
“There was a lot going on at that time. It was very tough. (The divorce) came out of left field,” Heaps said. “I didn’t see it coming. It was a shock. It was a tough transition through all of that.”
Meanwhile, Nelson waited in the wings going into the 2011 season.
Losing the starting job
I vividly remember the crowd was chanting for Riley to come back in,” Heaps recalled. “For a young kid who had never experienced that before, that was really hard. – Jake Heaps
Heaps started the first five games, which included a one-point win at Ole Miss, a one-point loss at Texas and a 54-10 beatdown at the hands of Utah.
It was the game against the Utes that featured an unfortunate play that he’s remembered for — on the opening drive the Cougars were facing third-and-13 from inside their own 20-yard line. The snap to Heaps was high, then Heaps tried to pick it up, tried throwing it and tried picking it up in the end zone. Utah recovered the loose ball and scored a touchdown. That set the tone on a night that saw the Cougars give up seven turnovers.
“Besides my famous turnover that lives on in everyone’s mind in Utah, we had two or three fumbles inside the red zone when we were driving,” Heaps said. “That led to an open house for those guys. They really took it away. I remember being so frustrated.”
But for Heaps, that wasn’t the worst part.
“I vividly remember the crowd was chanting for Riley to come back in,” Heaps recalled. “For a young kid who had never experienced that before, that was really hard. I would love to say that I didn’t notice or blocked it out but it was pretty loud. It was extremely emotional for me. How do you deal with that? How do you overcome that and not worry about it? A learning lesson for a young kid.”
Then, against Utah State, BYU trailed by 11 in the second half when he was replaced by Nelson, who rallied the Cougars to a dramatic 27-24 victory with 11 seconds remaining.
Heaps had lost his starting job. He looked at the schedule and knew that as BYU played against weaker competition as the season went on, it wasn’t likely that Nelson would give up his starting role.
“The way (the coaches) painted it was, 'Hey, it could be one game.' But the reality was, even though I was young, I wasn’t stupid. You look at the second half of the schedule, we were playing San Jose State, Oregon State, Idaho State … there was nothing that was going to lead me to believe that I was going to take over the job again. I figured we were going to win by 50 points every game. That’s what ended up happening. From my perspective, I felt like if they would have hung with me for one more game, against San Jose State, things could have been different."
Heaps figured his next best chance to get quality playing time would be against TCU in Dallas.
When that didn’t happen, Heaps — who ended up starting only one more game, against New Mexico State late in the season after Nelson got injured — knew it was time for a fresh start.
“I needed a new place and to get away from the emotionally charged situation,” he said. “I want people to know that I really tried hard to ask questions to the coaches and get direction and figure out how to go about this thing and I never really got any clear guidance in that whole process when I was looking for it.”
Two transfers — Kansas, then Miami
Days after the 2011 season ended, Heaps announced his intentions to transfer, winding up at Kansas to play for Charlie Weis, the former Notre Dame coach and former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots.
“That was my decision-making, to go learn from Charlie Weis and learn an NFL offense and try to put myself in a better position,” he said. “I definitely got that.”
Heaps sat out the 2012 season as per NCAA rules and worked to rediscover his confidence. He enjoyed the campus and community in Lawrence, Kansas.
“I loved my teammates and I was able to, I wouldn’t say reinvent myself, but everything was learning from that experience I had at BYU. I definitely learned all of those things. I was captain of the team,” he said. “I was scout team player of the year. I did everything I could to be the best teammate that everyone could count on. And just be myself. That was the biggest thing when I was at Kansas. I was able to feel like I could gain that side of me back, you could say.”
But the football program?
“We just weren’t very good,” Heaps said. The Jayhawks finished the 2013 season 3-9. Heaps started the season before being replaced by Montell Cozart. In 11 games, Heaps completed 128 of 261 passes for 1,414 yards with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The next spring, Cozart beat out Heaps, who then left for Miami to finish his career. Heaps intended to win the starting job with the Hurricanes and go on to the NFL.
“There was a ton of talent at Miami at that time. They told me I was going to be the guy,” Heaps said. “That was probably the hardest experience of my college career because I did everything right.”
Heaps arrived in Miami in the summer of 2014 and found himself in another quarterback battle, this time with true freshman Brad Kaaya.
“I played very well and in a matter of two months I was recognized as one of the leaders of the team,” he said. “I didn’t win the job.”
As fate would have it, Heaps, who started as a true freshman in 2010 at BYU, was, as a senior, beaten out by a true freshman, Kaaya.
“I’ll never forget how they sat me down in the head coach’s office with the head coach and the offensive coordinator,” Heaps said. “They told me I did everything I was supposed to do but they wanted to go in a younger direction and develop for the future. That was extremely hard for me.
"I moved my wife to Florida looking for this opportunity. To know that I didn’t lose out on it, I wasn’t the situation they were looking for, I guess. That’s recruiting for you. That was the toughest part. I thought my career was probably over.”
In Miami, Heaps appeared in only three games, completing 6 of 12 passes for 51 yards.
At the end of the year, Heaps received the “U Respect Award,” emblematic of the player teammates respect the most.
“It hits home to me that I was able to make an impact like that in a short amount of time,” he said. “I went home and worked my tail off and gave it one last opportunity on Pro Day to see what would happen.”
Pupil becomes teacher
Heaps wasn't drafted, but he got his NFL opportunity with the New York Jets and later with the Seattle Seahawks as a member of their practice squads. It was in Seattle that he met Seahawks' star quarterback Russell Wilson.
“We became good friends while we were teammates together in Seattle. He saw what I was doing training quarterbacks,” Heaps said. “I had my own business that I was doing. He saw what I was doing and wanted to get involved. It was a no-brainer situation. It’s been a great ride to this point. I’m excited about what we’ll be doing in the future.”
These days, Heaps helps young quarterbacks — ones like him when he was younger. His goal is to help them by drawing upon his own experiences.
“It’s 100 percent of what I do. It’s totally ingrained in who I am and what I do as a coach,” he said. “That’s what I love about this is I can relate to these kids in every aspect of their careers and what they’re going through because I’ve been through it, both the highs and the lows.
"I want them to live up to their potential. I was a guy that could have been an NFL draft pick had things gone differently. I look at that and say, ‘I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.’ I want them to have great high school careers, be kids and enjoy it, go off to college, be prepared and understand what it’s really like and be as prepared as possible. I draw from my experiences, whether it’s on or off the field. I want them to be prepared for the situations that I wasn’t. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
As part of the job, Heaps helps young quarterbacks through the turbulent recruiting process.
“It’s such a family experience when you’re going through it. Mom and dad are trying to help their kid and they don’t know. There’s no handbook on the situation or true guidance,” he said. “You see parents that struggle because they don’t want to mess it up for their kid and they’re doing the best they can. A fun part of my job is helping these guys through the whole process. I see it more as a mentorship than a coach.”
Relationship with BYU today
Before he came to Provo, Heaps faced a backlash at home in the Seattle area because he chose BYU over Washington.
“When I committed to BYU, it was not pretty back home. People were very upset about it. To this day, people give me crap about it,” he said. “I have to remind them they were 0-12 when I made my commitment.”
Some BYU fans consider Heaps as a pariah of sorts because of the way his career unfolded in Provo.
“Sometimes I get people who run into me and say, ‘Wish you could have stayed. We loved you.’ You get people that I run into that weren’t necessarily fans of mine and are skeptical and I can see it,” he said. “Once they get to know me they like me and see things differently.
"That’s been fascinating for me and that’s the story a little bit. There were a lot of misconceptions about who I was and what I was about. That’s always interesting to me when I meet people like that. It is what it is. I’m grateful for those experiences.”
No, Heaps didn't produce a stellar career at BYU like he expected and had hoped for, but it is the place where he met his wife.
How does he feel about BYU today?
“I can’t 100 percent give my honest comments on it, but for me, I’m very excited for Kalani Sitake and his staff there. The environment they’ve created there is exciting. I’m rooting for BYU,” Heaps said. “My wife and I have fond memories there. A lot of times, you focus on the bad but we have great memories there. The negative people have said things about me and my career there, but there’s also been a ton of positive support. I’ve appreciated that so much.
"I look back at BYU with fond memories but also memories of wishing it could have been different. When you get recruited, you don’t have a glass ball. You can’t foresee the future. You’re trying to make the best decision for yourself at that time. It’s really a gamble. You just hope you’re making the best decision. I feel like I made the right decision with BYU at the time. I wouldn’t take anything back from what I experienced.”