Heap proves pretty sharp in own right

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Todd Heap hasn't spoken to Shannon Sharpe in nearly a year, but the Ravens' starting tight end carries the words of his mentor on every route.

Seeing a defender close in, Heap will make an impromptu fake to the outside and go up the seam. Or he'll toy with him by giving a stutter step to break free for a 5-yard out pattern.

So, what was the wisdom bestowed by Sharpe, the sage of all NFL tight ends? Play like a kid.

"He told me to have a little imagination out there and make things up as you go," Heap said. "I could really relate to that because I remember all those days playing ball in the back yard. It's funny because whenever I watch film, I see myself doing a lot of things that he did and showed me how to do."

An apprentice under Sharpe as a rookie last year, Heap will show what lessons he has learned when the Ravens (0-2) take on Sharpe and the Denver Broncos (3-0) tomorrow night at Ravens Stadium.

Besides having an up-close look at Sharpe breaking the NFL's all-time receiving record for tight ends, Heap watched how Sharpe studied, practiced and kept in shape. Although Sharpe's outspoken personality never rubbed off, the low-key Heap quietly picked up subtleties from the way Sharpe warmed up to the timing of his jab steps.

"The development of Todd Heap was accelerated tenfold," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He learned a lot of the tricks of the trade from Shannon."

Filling Sharpe's void has yet to occur through no fault of Heap.

Given little opportunity to run downfield, Heap is third on the Ravens with eight receptions for a shockingly low 5 yards a catch. The Ravens drafted Heap in the first round in 2001 because of his playmaking during his final two seasons at Arizona State, where 66 percent of his receptions resulted in a first down or a touchdown.

But team officials aren't worried about Heap or their game plan. If Sharpe could produce in this system, Heap should have no difficulty following suit.

"If it lasted the whole year and he averaged 5 yards a catch, we all ought to be shot," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "I think our excitement with Todd is that we feel he can do everything that Shannon was doing for us. That will happen. I have no qualms about that."

Sharpe, too, expects it to happen. "I think he's going to be a good tight end in this league," Sharpe said. "It's just a matter of time before he becomes a great talent."

Like Sharpe, Heap is considered a rare breed of tight end. He has the speed, the hands, the body control to make cuts and the understanding of how to run routes.

Heap is so highly regarded that he is the only player who occupies his own place in Billick's game plan. Billick has a list of how to get the ball to Heap on short, intermediate and long routes.

Billick has done this with only one other player, Minnesota's Cris Carter.

"I want to be very careful here, to put Todd Heap into Shannon Sharpe's class right now is a mouthful," Billick said. "But Todd has all the athletic ability and he's had a chance to watch and learn from Shannon. So, there's no reason not to think he cannot truly develop into that level of player."

Heavy metal

Trying to follow in Sharpe's footsteps is no pressure for Heap. Trying to catch a falling 250-pound rectangular metal slab is another story.

Back in Arizona, Heap is involved in an unorthodox training routine with St. Louis Rams safety Adam Archuleta, a former college teammate. The workout is a demanding one, during which weights are dropped and caught, in which an athlete leaps while holding barbells, in which muscles are stretched to the max.

There's the contraption that looks like a bench-press machine beneath four poles. A heavy slab slides up and down the poles. You lie on your back on the bench, and two people drop the slab. You have to catch it. Each time you do, it's 7,000 pounds of force.

In another exercise, a person is standing, bent slightly forward at the waist, legs spread wider than shoulder width, holding a 45-pound barbell plate like a steering wheel with both hands. You drop it, then catch it in midair over and over. That's about 130 pounds of force per repetition.

"That's the most demanding workout I have ever done," said Chad Steele, the Ravens' media relations manager and a former college basketball player. "I was in there for 20 minutes and I couldn't walk for almost two weeks."

At 6 feet 5, 252 pounds, Heap has a sturdy, lean physique and looks more like a basketball player. But Heap said the workouts improved his bench press about 100 pounds in his first year with the routine and that he went from 4.70 seconds to 4.58 in the 40-yard dash.

"It makes you more explosive," Heap said. "Every play, you're punching, you're cutting hard or you're planting and breaking. All of the things we do translate onto the football field."

Over the edge

Like his route running, Heap can be extremely deceptive. One of the most reserved Ravens in the locker room, he has a daredevil mentality.

Heap's favorite X Games pastimes are snowboarding and wakeboarding. Before he signed with the Ravens, he thrived off riskier ventures like jumping off cliffs. Looking 75 feet down into Arizona's Box Canyon, Heap has survived death-defying dives into Lake Gordon.

"I've always kind of liked the rush of it," said Heap, who has had to temporarily put off his cliff jumping until after his football career. "It's kind of like playing football. Sometimes a good hit is a good hit. Even when you're the guy getting hit, it feels good. Yes, I'm alive and I'm playing football."

While it's the same excitement, Heap said leaping off a cliff and going across the middle of the field are different fears.

"Jumping off a cliff, you know what you're getting into. You know your stomach is going to be up in your throat and you're going to hit the water sometime," Heap said. "Coming over the middle, you don't know whether the guy is going to lay you out or not. You go in blindly.

"You have to be a little crazy to jump some of the cliffs and have to be a little crazy to go over the middle."

This thrill seeking dates to when Heap was 4 years old. Sneaking away from his family at the swimming pool, he climbed up to the highest diving board and jumped.

"That's always been his personality," said Bob Heap, Todd's father. "He's been adventurous since he was a little boy."

Family life quick, too

This fast-paced life doesn't end when he goes home.

At 22 years old, Heap already has a wife and daughter. He got married before his rookie season, and his wife, Ashley, gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter named Brooklyn, just before this year's training camp.

"I don't do anything slow," Heap said. "I never really sat back and relaxed. As far as my personal life, that's what I have always wanted. I'm happier now than I have ever been. It really is cool to be living what you have always dreamed of."

Balancing his responsibilities has never been a problem. The second oldest of six children, Heap is used to a hectic lifestyle and usually juggled four to five sports while growing up.

"He has always been self-motivated," his father said. "Let's just say I never had to set his alarm because he always did it on his own."

The Ravens' coaching staff noticed Heap's composure even as a rookie.

"You look at him and see a bright-eyed kid who runs around," tight ends coach Wade Harman said. "But he's a mature guy for his age. He is a disciplined guy."

0-2 but confident

His early-season numbers won't be forcing Heap off a cliff anytime soon.

Heap may lack the statistics but not the confidence. Although he hasn't caught a pass over 11 yards in the first two games, he had seven receptions for 89 yards in the preseason, including a 28-yard catch.

"We'll get down the field," Heap said. "It's frustrating, but it's something I know I can do. I know I can make plays. I know I can go downfield and go up and make catches on guys."

The Ravens will attempt to hide Heap to make it easier getting him the ball, splitting him out wide and sending him in motion. They may even have Heap working out of the backfield.

Heap is considered the key to the passing game. The Ravens are projecting Heap, if healthy, to catch 70 to 75 passes, which would force defenses to double him and rotate coverage away from the wide receivers.

"When you got a tight end catching seven balls a game, your receivers are going to love him because at some point people are going to have to take him away," Cavanaugh said. "We haven't scared anybody yet with our wide-outs, but I think when Todd starts getting more catches, he'll start drawing the attention that Shannon drew."

With Sharpe watching tomorrow night, Heap believes it's time to stop following and become a leader.

"If you see a guy who's been to how many Pro Bowls and Super Bowls, it would have been dumb if I was to come in and not pay attention," Heap said. "There's a point where you follow the guys that have been where you want to go. Then there's also a point where you want to do your own thing and make a name for yourself."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Denver Broncos

Site: Ravens Stadium

When: Tomorrow, 9 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Broncos by 7

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