Ask Kansas State football players what most impresses them about Dominique Heath, and they will say little about his sensational game against Florida Atlantic last week.
Sure, it was a breakthrough performance and his highlights — 40 yards and a touchdown as a receiver, 75 yards and a touchdown as a punt returner — were the type of plays the Wildcats lacked a year ago, but none of it qualified as the most impressive thing he has done in a K-State uniform.
Those who know him best say Heath’s top accomplishment occurred during a string of games late last season. That may come as a surprise considering Heath’s production hit rock bottom near the end of his redshirt freshman year, but his play left a lasting impact.
Why? Because Heath played hurt. He sprained his left ankle in K-State’s fourth game and injured his right knee three games later, requiring offseason surgery.
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“I was really battling,” Heath says now. “Every step hurt.”
Still, he didn’t miss a game, making it onto the field 13 times to do his part on offense and special teams. He felt he owed it to his teammates to play, even if he could only go half speed.
His freshman numbers — 465 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns — didn’t wow anyone. But his toughness did.
“He got banged up early on, but he was still out there catching balls in the corner of the end zone against Texas Tech, making big plays when we needed him in other games,” K-State tight end Dayton Valentine said. “That just shows how reliable a playmaker he is.”
Heath is even more reliable now that he is healthy. The speed and elusiveness that made him an immediate starter is back and so are the big plays that come with it.
Many expected newcomer Byron Pringle to lead the way as K-State’s top receiver this season, but, so far, that title belongs to Heath. Through two games, Heath leads the Wildcats with seven receptions, 105 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown. He is also the team’s top punt returner.
Not bad for a guy who was little more than an injured decoy at times last year.
“It’s a lot of fun to see him running around on offense and in the kicking game again,” Valentine said. “He is so fast, but the best thing about him is he’s more than just quick. He’s also a sure-handed, go-to player.”
Heath began turning heads with his speed as a high school player in Huntersville, N.C., setting school records for touchdowns, receiving yards and all-purpose yards. His size, 5 feet 8, 175 pounds, concerned some college coaches and he wasn’t heavily recruited, but K-State coaches showed interest the second they saw his highlight video.
Many compared him to former receiver Tramaine Thompson, coincidentally the last K-State player to catch a touchdown pass and return a punt for a touchdown in the same game.
“He brings some diversity in the fact that he does not always have to line up inside,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He can line up outside as well. So he can play across the board, because of his experience. He has some good quickness to him and is not afraid to lay out and make catches. He can make some of the hard catches that we have seen him make.”
If anyone had doubts about Heath’s bounce-back potential, he erased them early on against Florida Atlantic by scoring the game’s first touchdown.
K-State faced a third-and-8 from the 20, and Heath lined up in the slot of a four-receiver formation. Florida Atlantic surrounded him with three defenders in zone coverage, but Heath slipped between them on a slant route. Quarterback Jesse Ertz fired a pass to him at the 12, and Heath took it into the end zone.
“I was really just thinking, get to the sticks, but after I caught the ball I didn’t see anyone back there and took off with it,” Heath said. “It was a good play. I knew it would work as soon as it was called.”
That’s the type of confidence that comes after months of rehab and work to get back on the field.
Heath never blamed bad luck for his injuries last year. Instead, he blamed himself. He was fast enough and tough enough to play in the Big 12, sure, but was he strong enough? Was he fit enough? The more Heath thought about those questions, he decided the answers were no.
So he worked to improve his body.
“He looks like a different person,” defensive back Dante Barnett said. “He gained weight and put on a ton of muscle. It’s really paying off for him.”
Last year, Heath proved he was tough. This year, he’s ready to prove more.
“I am a lot healthier and more confident than I was last season,” Heath said. “My first season on the field, everything moved so fast. Now the game is really slowing down for me. I feel comfortable in everything we do. I’m looking forward to a great year in a great offense.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett