Dominique Heath faces one of the most difficult challenges in all of college football this season.
The speedy receiver and return man from North Carolina must replace the top statistical receiver and return man in Kansas State history, Tyler Lockett. And he must do so as a redshirt freshman.
Lockett, now making highlights for the Seattle Seahawks, broke record after record at K-State by catching 249 passes for 3,710 yards and 29 touchdowns on top of returning 77 kicks for 2,196 yards and four touchdowns. Matching that production seems impossible. Just don’t say that to Heath.
“I feel like I can step in and replace Tyler,” Heath said. “(I think I can play) just as well as he did. With the guys in front of me and the way we go over special teams, we take the challenge so seriously.”
Heath is confident for several reasons. Chief among them: a dominant effort at K-State’s spring game in which he reeled off 374 yards and a touchdown as the return man. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound playmaker was far and away the most exciting part of the scrimmage, constantly making defenders miss and beating tacklers with shifty moves.
He has improved since. Not only did Heath top K-State’s depth chart at punt returner earlier this week, he joined Morgan Burns at the back of the kick-return unit and earned a starting job at slot receiver.
Lockett inherited the same duties as a freshman.
“His big-play ability,” junior receiver Deante Burton said of Heath, “is going to be something that can really help this team.”
Teammates are not surprised by Heath’s rapid ascent. They say he grabbed hold of K-State’s vacant return role and worked with his blockers to make for an easy transition. They like the way he credits “the other 10 guys on the field” whenever he makes a play.
Beating more experienced receivers, including seniors Kyle Klein, Andre Davis and Stanton Weber, for a starting spot was difficult, but he won the job by showing maturity and talent.
“He is one of those guys that stayed after workouts to just work on certain things to get better,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He runs well. He catches well. He has learned the system well. He is good in and out of cuts. Still, an amount of room to improve, but by the same token, he has adapted to the wide receiver position and has the capability to line up in a lot of spots.”
The most impressive thing about him may be his dependability. Many young receivers, especially ones that rely on juke moves to make plays, focus too heavily on highlight plays and forget about the fundamentals. Not Heath.
“He has got just as good of hands as Tyler Lockett,” left tackle Cody Whitehair said. “I don’t know if I have seen Dom drop a ball. He sees the ball well into his hands and he always possesses the ball before he takes off.”
Burton says Heath reminds him of former slot receiver Tramaine Thompson. His potential is high.
That does not guarantee success, of course. Heath shined during the spring game and preseason practices, but he has never played in a true college game. Things will be different against South Dakota on Saturday.
Can he follow in Lockett’s footsteps? Who knows?
All Heath can say is that he learned a lot last season while he watched Lockett from the sideline. He expected big things in the spring and summer. He expects the same now.
“There are going to be a lot of big returns,” Heath said. “I think we have a great special teams return unit.”
South Dakota at Kansas State
When: 6:10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Snyder Family Stadium, Manhattan
Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM; KWLS, 107.9-FM
Three things about South Dakota
1. South Dakota is coming off a 2-10 season, and was picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference this season.
2. The Coyotes have an experienced roster. They return 18 starters from a year ago, eight on offense.
3. Five players on South Dakota’s roster are from Kansas, including Wichita Heights’ Jet Moreland, Derby’s Tanner Anderson and Conway Springs’ Kayl Barkley.
K-State’s offensive line vs. South Dakota’s defensive line. The Wildcats struggled to run the ball last season, but they return four starters up front and Charles Jones, the team’s leading rusher a year ago. Many are expecting a much improved rushing game. K-State needs to show progress right away and dominate the line of scrimmage against a smaller opponent.
Kellis Robinett’s pick: K-State, 40-10
With a new quarterback, K-State may not be sharp right away on offense, but the Wildcats will find their rhythm and score touchdowns against a bad Championship Subdivision opponent.