Navy linebacker Taylor Heflin blossoms into impact player as a senior

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Mike Heflin said his son became known as an impact player while at Wayne County High.

Taylor Heflin was a four-year varsity performer and three-year starter at linebacker for Wayne County, which reached the Sweet 16 of the Georgia AAAA state playoffs his junior year and advanced all the way to the Final Four when he was a senior. The hard-hitting linebacker led the team in tackles and was an honorable mention All-State selection seasons.

So Mike Heflin wasn’t at all surprised with what he saw at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Sept. 8. Taylor Heflin was a force to be reckoned with during Navy’s American Athletic Conference opener against Memphis, recording seven tackles while also coming up with a huge sack and crucial fumble recovery.

“Taylor’s always had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. In high school, he made a lot of game-changing plays such as interceptions and forced fumbles,” said Mike Heflin, who was an assistant coach at Wayne County High. “I knew Taylor always had it in him. He’s smart, knows the game, plays hard and is very aggressive. He just needed an opportunity.”

Heflin is getting that opportunity this season after battling through battling some injuries and serving in a backup role as a junior. The 6-foot-2, 229-pound inside linebacker is Navy’s second-leading tackler with 29, just one behind best friend and running mate Hudson Sullivan.

Sullivan and Heflin were the starting inside linebackers at the Naval Academy Prep School in 2014 and have waited four years to be reunited. Heflin made two starts as a sophomore because Sullivan got injured. Last season, Heflin backed up Micah Thomas, who started all 13 games and led the team in tackles. Meanwhile, Sullivan only played in six games due to injury and was replaced by Winn Howard and Brandon Jones instead of Heflin.

“Hudson and I have been really good friends from pretty much the time we met. We study together and hang out on weekends,” Heflin said. “We’ve been looking forward to when both of us got on the field at the same time.”

Sullivan was pretty much assured a starting spot this season based off his strong performance to close out the 2017 campaign, but there was plenty of competition to replace Thomas at the other inside linebacker slot.

“It’s always fun when Hef is out there with me, which hasn’t happened much since we were together at NAPS,” said Sullivan, who plays the SAM position. “Taylor has played well every chance he got so it’s nice that he finally has a shot to start for a whole season. I had no doubt he would step up and perform at a high level.”

Heflin, who plays the MIKE position, is actually beating his buddy in terms of solo tackles, 17-11. That is a point of contention between the two as they both take great pride in pursuing the ball-carrier or pass-catcher.

“There’s a lot of competition to see who can get to the ball first. Right now he’s beating me so I have to step up a little bit,” Sullivan said. “When you run to the ball the way Taylor does you are going to make some plays.”

Heflin was all over the place against SMU, equaling a career-high with 12 tackles while also posting a sack, tackle for loss and forced fumble.

“I think Taylor has been flying around and being really aggressive,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said. “Taylor is fun to watch play because he loves to play so much. He’s a really tough, hard-nosed kid who plays the game the right way.”

Sullivan and Heflin hit it off from the beginning for a variety of reasons. They grew up about an hour from each other in northern Virginia and have similar personalities as soon as the helmet and shoulder pads are put on.

“Taylor is a tough dude. He gets angry like I do and uses that as motivation out on the field,” Sullivan said. “I’d say Hef and I both have a short fuse, a little bit of a temper.”

While Heflin is normally mild-mannered and easy-going, that nasty disposition described by Sullivan can sometimes carry over into regular Naval Academy life.

“Hef is my best friend, but he’s not afraid to hold a grudge against you for a while if he gets mad at you for some reason,” Sullivan said with a chuckle. “Usually, Taylor is really funny and likes to have a good time, but when he gets pissed off everyone knows to stay away from him.”

AN ACADEMY TYPE OF KID

Heflin grew up in Stephens City, Virginia, which is a 58-mile drive down I-66 from Nokesville where Sullivan still resides. Heflin was nine years old when the family moved to Jesup, Georgia, because his parents wanted to “go somewhere warm and be near the beach.”

While Jesup is largely surrounded by swampland, it is located about an hour from St. Simons Island, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire state. So naturally Heflin spent a lot of time at the ocean, correct?

“Not too much. I sunburn really badly because I’m so pink,” he said with a laugh.

Navy assistant coach Justin Davis showed up at Wayne County High to recruit a wide receiver named Krenwick Sanders. Jody Grooms, the head coach at the time, told Davis that Sanders – who wound up at Wisconsin – did not have the academic profile or desire to attend a service academy and suggested he turn his attention to Heflin instead.

Mike Heflin, who teaches social studies at Wayne County High, spent a total of 23 years as a football coach. Julie Heflin is a registered nurse who works at Fort Stewart.

Mike spent 10 years in the United States Air Force as a military police, serving significant time in England and Germany. Julie was a nurse in the Army reserve and reached the rank of captain while being deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm.

“My wife and I both come from a military background so we were real excited about the Naval Academy opportunity,” Mike Heflin said. “I think Taylor was excited about serving his country.”

Taylor Heflin, whose other scholarship offers were from Football Championship Subdivision schools Kennesaw State, Mercer and Wofford, also jumped at the chance to play at the highest level.

The 2013 Wendy’s Heisman Award winner fit the service academy profile, having served as class president as a junior and senior while being named captain of both the football and track teams.

Mike Heflin also coached track and field at Wayne County High and encouraged his son to give that sport a try. Taylor Heflin was a two-time state qualifier in both the discus and the shot put, but is most proud of having won a race in the 110-meter hurdles.

“I did the 110 hurdles to try to help my speed and agility for football,” Heflin said. “I was racing one time and three other guys fell down so I got first place. It was the most insane thing and everyone was screaming because I was so slow.”

Sullivan laughed when Heflin’s track prowess was brought up during an interview.

“Hef always brags about his 110 hurdles. He brings that up every time we have to test our vertical jump,” Sullivan said. “He does always have one of the highest verts on defense.”

Navy got hit hard at inside linebacker in 2016 with defensive captain Daniel Gonzales going down early in the season and his replacement, Sullivan, suffering an injury down the stretch. Heflin suddenly found himself starting the American Athletic Conference championship game versus Temple and also started the following Saturday against archrival Army, opening some eyes by notching a career-high 12 tackles.

“My first start was the conference championship game, which was kind of crazy because I began the season like seventh on the depth chart,” said Heflin, who totaled 32 tackles as a sophomore. “Somehow, I climbed up to the top and they threw me in there against Temple. I had to get over the nerves real quick.”

Heflin suffered a hamstring injury while running sprints back home during the summer and that was a setback going into August training camp. He was admittedly disappointed to not earn a starting job as a junior, but worked even harder and became a valuable backup and special teams performer.

A couple injuries that forced Heflin to miss three games made 2017 even more difficult. However, he closed the campaign in style by making five tackles versus Virginia in the Military Bowl.

Heflin said he worked hard during the offseason to improve his athleticism in order to become more effective as a pass rusher and less of a liability in coverage.

“I think Taylor is a little more athletic and also a lot savvier just from having gotten playing experience. He has some limitations, but knows what they are and works to overcome them,” Navy inside linebackers coach Steve Johns said. “I would say Taylor is probably at best in the box because he’s such a good run defender. He is just a physical, tough, try hard type of kid.”

Heflin still carries a chip on his shoulder and acts like he still has something to prove to the coaching staff and teammates.

“I try to never get complacent. Someone recently told me the only time you coast is going downhill and I’m definitely not doing that,” he said. “I come to work every day like I don’t have a starting spot.”

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