DEKALB – Every successful football team needs somebody to do some dirty work.
That’s where Jack Heflin comes in.
A redshirt sophomore from Prophetstown, Heflin happily toils away on the defensive line for the Northern Illinois University Huskies. He is an interior lineman, and he often tangles with a center and a guard, or perhaps if he lines up a bit more outside, a guard and a tackle.
A pass-rush demon at Erie-Prophetstown, Heflin’s main job now is to occupy blockers.
“I didn’t know if I was going to like this, but I ended up loving it,” Heflin said. “It’s super fun. I get double-teamed a lot, but nothing beats when you get the guard, he can’t get off of you, and your middle linebacker comes flying through the hole and wipes him out.”
Heflin tipped the scales at a relatively light 267 pounds his freshman year, in the fall of 2016, and as a redshirt he lifted weights and gained bulk, as the coaching staff informed him he’d be moving to the inside. Last year, he was a full-time starter at nose guard after bulking up to about 300 pounds and posted eight tackles (six solos), including one for a loss of 4 yards.
Stats don’t even begin to tell the job of Heflin’s effectiveness, however, and nobody appreciated him more than All-America defensive end Sutton Smith.
Smith was a terror on the field with 29.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, eight quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, three pass breakups and 63 total tackles.
“Jack, he eats double-teams,” Smith said. “He was raised on a farm, so we call him ‘Big Beefy.’ He’s a beast out there. The reason why our linebackers can make so many plays is he’s taking the guy that’s supposed to be getting the linebackers. You don’t find a guy like that that can penetrate a double-team, slip it and possibly make the play, or at least disrupt everything.
“Having a guy like that, to me, that’s the money-maker right there. I could have all the stats in the world, but you’ve got a guy that’s taking a bullet for the team, ooh, that’s ‘Big Beefy.’”
NIU head coach Rod Carey, himself a former center at Indiana University, knows what it’s like to tangle with a disruptive defensive lineman. He described Heflin as “strong, with good size, good feet, and want-to.”
“That’s a thankless job because you’re taking on two guys most of the time, and at least one guy all of the time,” Carey said. “Jack’s butting heads a lot. The want-to is probably his best attribute.”
A freak weight-training accident in February led to a back injury and curtailed Heflin’s off-season training a bit. He was limited for about 3 months, and was unable to pack on the muscle he had planned on. Still, the 6-foot-3 Heflin tips the scales at a stout 284 pounds, and he’s confident he’ll be able to hold his own against bigger offensive linemen in his way. He described that challenge as “fun.”
“They’re bigger, but they have a lot more substance that’s not muscle,” Heflin said. “It’s a challenge. I accept the role of going against bigger guys, and when you beat someone bigger than you, you just look at them like, ‘I’m faster than you, stronger than you, and now I’m better than you.’”
The Huskies return six starters on defense, including all four starters from the defensive line. They are Heflin, fellow tackle Ben LeRoy, and defensive ends Smith and Josh Corcoran. That crew, as well as some talented reserves, has Heflin excited about what the NIU defense can accomplish.
“On the defensive line, we can really be special,” Heflin said. “We’re really deep across the board. There’s eight, nine guys than can play legit time and not skip a beat. It’s just every day getting better. We’re pretty hungry. We’re pretty close. You can say anything you want to anyone, and they’re not going to get mad at you. They just know that you want them to get better.”
The Huskies appear loaded. In addition to six defensive starters returning, there are nine on the offensive side, including sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers, the MAC offensive freshman of the year, and tackle Max Scharping, who has started 39 consecutive games and is an All-America candidate.
NIU was picked in a media preseason poll as the favorite in the MAC West Division, but it is the non-conference schedule that sticks out in 2018. The Huskies have road games against Iowa (Sept. 1), Florida State (Sept. 22) and Brigham Young (Oct. 27) and a home date against Utah (Sept. 8), which will the first time a Pac-12 school visits DeKalb.
Heflin is particularly jacked for the opener against Iowa. He grew up a Hawkeyes fan and estimated he’s been to about seven of their games.
“My entire family is massive Iowa fans,” Heflin said, “and it’s going to be a fun game. Everybody’s going there and wants to be a part of it. Growing up, I was a huge Iowa fan, so it’s a dream to play in Kinnick [Stadium], but I love where I’m at and can’t wait to go play there.”
Heflin’s ultimate goal is to hit it big in football the way another Prophetstown native, Bret Bielema, did and continues to do. Bielema went to Iowa as a walk-on and left as a team captain.
He later coached at Wisconsin, then at Arkansas, and is now an assistant coach with the New England Patriots.
Heflin still has 3 more years left at NIU, and hopes to build himself into a pro prospect in that time.
“If I keep working and get better and better every day, I think there’s a shot,” Heflin said. “Anyone can get a shot. [Monday] night I had a long conversation with my position coach [Walter Stewart]. He said people just need to have a skill set and a hard work ethic, and he does a good job of coaching the right skill set for it.”
If playing doesn’t work out, Heflin wants to coach college football.
“When I’m done with football, I don’t think I can give it up,” Heflin said. “I just love being around it too much. It’s just my passion.”
Carey will be in Heflin’s corner, if and/or when it comes to getting into the coaching business.
“I think if he ends up getting into the profession, and I’ll certainly have a hand in that if he chooses to do that, he’ll be a fantastic coach,” Carey said. “He’s verbally smart. He understands it, and he can teach. You can tell that by the way he interacts with his teammates.”