On June 1st, Ja’Kobi Lane took an unofficial visit to Arizona State.
A four-star recruit in the Class of 2023, the junior at Red Mountain High School spoke with wide receivers coach Prentice Gill and defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins on his visit to Tempe. During their discussion, Todd Heap came up.
Before embarking on a 12-year career in the National Football League, Heap starred at Arizona State, earning All-Pac 10 honors in 1999 and 2000 and setting the Sun Devils record for catches (115) and receiving yards (1,685) by a tight end. The Mesa native was then drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with the 31st overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft.
Lane was told that Heap “is that guy and doesn’t mess around.” The wide receiver has experienced that mentality firsthand ahead of the 2021 season, since Heap is a member of the Varsity coaching staff at Red Mountain.
“He’s a great mentor as a man and how to be the best ‘you’ you can be,” Lane said. “I’m very thankful to have him as a role model and his role is not so much coach Heap, but Todd Heap. He’s a real genuine guy.”
Heap is heading into his second season with the Mountain Lions, spending the 2020 campaign coaching with the freshman squad — a team that included his sons Kyle and Preston. For the NFL veteran, who also spent two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, he is well known across the East Valley, especially in Mesa.
Graduating from Mountain View High School in 1998, he helped the Toros win back-to-back state championships in 1996 and 1997 and left the school holding various records, including most career receiving yards and most career touchdown receptions.
His fond memories of playing at Mountain View, as well as the ability to coach his sons, is what led to him join Mike Peterson’s staff.
“I just love being around every aspect of it,” Heap said. “I love working with kids all across the offense, even watching some of these defensive guys, and working with their technique and their skills. They’re so young and a lot of them have so much talent. You want to be able to bring that out by approaching the correct techniques and the correct way to do things.”
According to Heap, his role with the Red Mountain program is consultant. Calling himself a visual learner, he watches how players move, respond and react on the field before relaying his perspective on their play and how they can get better.
For example, Heap works closely with the Mountain Lions’ pass catchers on reeling in over-the-shoulder balls, emphasizing how their body, eyes and hands need to be in the right position. When he helps out on the other side of the ball, he reminds linebackers and defensive backs to be aggressive with wide receivers and tight ends to force them out of their routes.
What motivates Heap’s coaching style is his playing experience. He credited drills he did at Mountain View with his success at Arizona State and in the NFL. Now, the 41-year-old is putting his own spin on training to help Red Mountain’s players contend for a 6A title.
“I look at my path and what I did and it was always that love of competing,” Heap said. “I was always trying to push myself to be the best that I could be and so, that’s what you want to bring out of these young guys. Try to build that fire underneath them to where they can see their potential.”
For Kyle and Preston Heap, they have been longtime beneficiaries of their father’s mentorship and football knowledge. When they were younger, Heap ran drills to improve speed and quickness, experiences that contributed to them playing flag football early on. In eighth grade, the brothers participated in tackle football for the first time.
Now sophomores on Varsity, Preston followed in his father’s footsteps to tight end, while Kyle is a quarterback — a position that Todd played during his sophomore year at Mountain View. Both still receive pointers from Heap during practices and games, and his presence on the sideline gives Kyle “extra motivation” to perform at a high level.
“He wants to make all of us get better and play to the best of our ability,” Preston Heap said. “Whether it’s us or our teammates, he just always is going to be there and help out.”
Heap, a member of the Ravens’ Ring of Honor, was featured on the inaugural season on Hard Knocks — a show detailing a preseason with an NFL franchise — in 2001 as a rookie. Tuning in to the HBO production was Kyle Enders.
As Red Mountain’s defensive coordinator, Enders pays attention to what Heap brings to the Mountain Lions. His emphasis on the small details, like hand placement on blocking. A focus on work ethic to not only win games, but take one’s talent at the next level. A priority on making sure players know their assignments when the ball is snapped.
Whether in the film room preparing for a game or a conversation following a seven-on-seven tournament, Enders enjoys hearing Heap’s perspective and asks him questions ranging from on-field adjustments to blitz packages. He added that Heap is “somebody to look up to.”
They also discuss Heap’s football career. The two have talked about his appearance on Hard Knocks, as well as his time in Baltimore with players such as Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.
“(Heap) said (Lewis) lived in the playbook and watched film,” Enders said. “From a coach’s perspective, I’m like ‘Man, if a guy in the NFL at the highest level, they’re just watching that much film and they can identify stuff, as a coach I should be doing that as much as I possibly can and then just relaying it to the kids.’”
The former tight end’s impact also extends to the players on an individual level. According to Lane, Heap has advised him about the college football recruiting process, while Kyle and Preston say their father is always willing to show them pointers regarding their performance.
For Heap, coaching at Red Mountain is returning to his roots.
He is not just mentoring high schoolers in the same city where he grew up. He is paying homage to the competition that sparked his college and professional career: high school football.
“To be back around these kids and coaches brings back a little bit of that nostalgia,” Heap said. “You get to reminisce about those great times and help these kids build some of those same memories.”