Mental strength spurs Heckard, Anderson to lead Weber State cornerback success
OGDEN — Had one specific sequence gone differently two weekends ago in Davis, California, then Weber State football may very well not be 4-0 and would have taken a 0-1 start to its Big Sky schedule.
In what was eventually a 17-12 Weber State win, UC Davis drove to the Weber State 1-yard line with 10 seconds left in the first half, trailing 14-6.
UC Davis ran an underneath route for tight end McCallan Castles, a player expected to draw NFL interest when his college career is over, breaking him free at the 3-yard line for a catch with space to operate.
There to meet the 6-foot-5 Castles at the 1-yard line was 5-foot-10 junior cornerback Eddie Heckard. It would seem that 7-inch difference might be enough for Castles to push the ball to the goal line, but Heckard dropped him on the spot.
With 3 seconds left in the half, UC Davis called timeout and lined up for a field goal, which was blocked by junior cornerback Maxwell Anderson.
Heckard keeping the Aggies out of the end zone was paramount and Anderson’s blocked field goal was, too. Davis had a shot in WSU territory during the game’s final minute that ended on an incomplete fourth-down pass — but had Anderson not blocked the close-range kick to end the first half, the Aggies could have tried another field goal instead and potentially have taken a final-minute lead.
Heckard’s ability to make that stop was not a happenstance.
“I work hard in the weight room to be able to do some of those things and gain an advantage on my opponent,” he said. “I try to take advantage of my strength and my speed so I can have both in my bag. Sometimes I’m guarding tight ends so I need that strength, like on that goal-line stop. I take pride in it because I need it.”
Cornerbacks coach Andre Dyson stopped short of calling Heckard the strongest player on the team, if only to playfully avoid “starting something” within the team, but said he’s the strongest defensive back.
“He’s a tough kid, strong kid. He makes great tackles, he’s strong in the weight room and plays strong on the field,” Dyson said.
Heckard’s pride in his strength also comes from places other than the weight room.
In a video interview published by Weber State, Heckard spoke about his painful childhood in Las Vegas. He lived with an aunt at a young age until his father was released from prison.
“When my father got out of jail, he took me in, put me right in sports and took care of me,” Heckard said. “He never went back to jail, he changed his life around for me to stay in my life.”
But when Heckard was 9, his father was murdered. He moved back in with his aunt, who wasn’t in a great position to take him in.
“We got through it and that’s why I do what I do now,” he said. “It taught me to be grateful for everything I have. I look at my situation as it being something I had to go through.”
Heckard said he channels thoughts of his father during games.
“I pray twice a game. During the game I catch myself talking up, talking to myself knowing that my dad put me in sports and he’d be proud of me.”
Heckard may very well be the best cover corner in the Big Sky, impressive considering his status as a young player. Weber State was the only school to offer Heckard a scholarship and a leg injury basically wiped out his first two seasons on campus. He spent the early days of his college career gimping around the sideline with a brace fully immobilizing one leg below the hip. This outcome was far from sure.
“You’ve got to go hard in the offseason in the weight room to be able to do things like that,” Heckard said.
Through four games this season, he has 18 tackles, one interception and four pass breakups. He has six career interceptions and plenty of disruptive plays where he uses his speed and strength to bully receivers or make one-on-one tackles of running backs on the perimeter.
He and cornerbacks like Anderson, Kam Garrett and Marque Collins have joined with the safeties to weather an early-season storm where, when the front seven snuffs out the run game, opponents turn to the air to seek points.
Western Oregon attempted 34 passes against WSU, Utah State attempted 40, and Utah Tech and UC Davis each attempted 57 passes. That seems unlikely to change much this week against Eastern Washington.
Opponents can move the ball some through the air but usually do so inefficiently. Utah Tech only did so by attempting numerous fourth-down conversions in the first half. Miles Hastings did complete 39 passes against Weber State but the UC Davis quarterback only totaled 256 yards, a mere 6.5 yards per completion and 4.5 yards per attempt.
“You just worry about the next play … we’ve stepped up to the challenge thus far. These guys have played well and I don’t think they’re worried about making mistakes,” Dyson said. “Even if they do make a minor mistake, they don’t dwell on it, they just move on … you’re going to give up catches, but just don’t give up that explosive play that changes the game, and we’ve done a good job of that so far.”
Anderson has been hard to miss so far this season, what with his four interceptions in the first three games and the blocked field goal at UC Davis. He also blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in the season opener, a play that did not count as refs ruled the Western Oregon punter’s knee touched the ground when collecting the snap before Anderson blocked his kick.
Anderson’s growth has come in two ways. First, the longtime contributor said he took his offseason business seriously.
“When I was back at home, I was waking up really early going to work out, and getting on the field. It’s a lot of work I put in in the dark that nobody really saw except my parents seeing me go in and out of the house,” Anderson said. “When you do things like that, I feel like your confidence goes up, and that helps a lot. And just your maturity and mentality, that’s where I feel like I changed just knowing I put a lot of work in.”
Dyson sees the same thing.
“His attitude has been the biggest thing, just believing in himself. The confidence from film study, doing the extra work in the classroom so when you get to game day … I think he’s in that zone right now where he’s seeing things because of the way he’s preparing himself throughout the week,” Dyson said.
Dyson has been the other key component, Anderson said, though Dyson deflects credit to head coach Jay Hill and safeties coach Joe Dale for their previous work with the cornerbacks. Dyson — the former Clearfield High and University of Utah standout who played seven years in the NFL, reaching the Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks in 2005 — recently began his second stint coaching at Weber State.
Dyson coached three seasons at WSU from 2009-11 before becoming head coach of his high school alma mater for seven years. He returned to WSU as a part-time assistant ahead of the spring 2021 season and now, in his third season back, is a fully vested member of the coaching staff.
Anderson said the cornerbacks call Dyson “The Sensei.”
“That guy, he’s good at what he does. Very knowledgeable, a great coach,” Anderson said. “He knows how to break down film to a ‘T’ and it’s fun being under his wing and just learn the game of football a little more, how to grasp everything from a person who played a lot of years in the NFL. We love that guy.”
“He does a phenomenal job watching film and knowing how to get our guys to see what’s coming,” Hill added.
Those two things — an additional personal commitment to workouts and film study, and Dyson’s wise eye on the field and in the film room — combine to build a confident cornerbacks group come game day.
“The technique you work on day in, day out, if you work on that in practice and you know what you can tweak right away if you gave up a pass, it’s easy to move on,” Anderson said. “You know there’s not going to be too many plays like that if you have the work ethic, the discipline and attention to detail that we have in practice with Coach Dyson, it allows us to know things we can fix on the fly.”