Sleeper QB Opening Eyes In Memphis

When Tennessee missed out on the nation's top quarterbacks last season coaches opted to sign a sleeper from the Volunteer State in Jackson Central Merry's Bo Hardegree.

With UT coaches currently combing the country for a high-caliber QB, could they discover another diamond in the rough candidate in West Tennessee?

That prospect appears unlikely, but then again Memphis Melrose senior signal caller Antonio Heffner is an unlikely prospect. How so you say?

Well, consider that the 6-2, 175-pound, quick silver QB didn't earn his first start until the fourth game of his junior season. No big deal you say. And you'd be right, if not for the fact — Heffner never played football before last season.

Despite this glaring inexperience at a position largely defined by experience, Heffner launched his gridiron career like a seasoned pro. He didn't play in the first two games of the 2002 campaign, but got the call in game three against Christian Brothers with his team trailing 17-zip in the third quarter. At this point you might be thinking ‘it would just be too good to think Heffner rallied the Golden Wildcats to a victory,' and usually you'd be right, but this is an unusual story.

"We put him in in the third game and we were down 17 to nothing against Christian Brothers," said Melrose head coach Kenny Ingram. "He brought us back and we won 19-17, and he's was on just a whole other level that night and it was just from that game on that he took off."

Displaying a feel for pressure in the pocket and a command of progressions, Heffner completed 15-of-24 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns on strikes of 23, 38 and 27 yards with no interceptions.

"They tried to blitz him, he just made the correct moves and the correct reads at the correct time," said Ingram. "He's just a natural. I would love to be able to take credit for the tremendous job he does, but I just can't take credit for that."

Heffner is listed as having 4.5 speed, but he's more apt to use his quickness to buy time to find an open receiver as he is to streak up field.

"He's a player you really have to take your pick on what you're most impressed by," said Ingram. "He has a tremendously strong arm. Without a doubt he can throw it 65, 70 yards in the air. He has great poise and foot work in the pocket. He keeps his feet busy, he's not stationary. He does a great job of finding the open receiver, he goes from one, to two, to three. A lot of things he has done is while being raw because last year was his first to play football."

Heffner did play point guard for the basketball team as well as run track, but he didn't get the itch to throw the hitch until Melrose came off three years of probation last year and could compete in the playoffs.

"We have a lot to prove," Heffner said prior to the start of the season. "If the team stays together, we can get back to state and bring our fans back.

"There are a lot of special things about Melrose. We want to remind people of that."

Heffner helped fulfill that optimistic prophecy by leading Melrose to a 12-1 mark and a place in the state 4A semifinals. That was a major improvement from the 6-5 season the Golden Wildcats had in 2001. The achievement is even more impressive when you take into account Melrose only played two home games last season.

Due to injury and beginning the season as a backup, Heffner only started eight games for the Golden Wildcats and in several of those he threw few passes. For instance: In a 55-12 victory over Memphis Westwood he hit 4-of-6 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. In that same game, he kicked just as many extra points as he attempted passes. In another victory, he completed 2-of-4 for 39 yards. However in the 7-6 playoff loss to Nashville Hillsboro, he completed 13-of-23 for 184 yards.

"We've had the luxury of having a great running back to go with a great quarterback and we got a great bunch of receivers," explained Ingram. "Because we do have Joseph Doss and another running back that does a great job for us, we don't have to put the game on Antonio's shoulders. He doesn't have to put up big numbers for us to win, but he's more than capable of doing that."

Heffner earned all-city, all-metro all-region and all-state honors in his first season on the gridiron, but before you conclude that he is a media creation spurred on by Melrose's penchant for self promotion, read one SEC recruiter's unsolicited assessment of this football neophyte — "He's the best quarterback I've seen on tape this year."

Ingram didn't have complete stats on Heffner's season, but said he was very efficient in the categories that count the most.

"His touchdown to interception ratio was outstanding," he said. "He completed a high percent of his passes and he made some good runs when he couldn't find anyone open. There's been games where he's had to run. Against Fairley in the playoffs, he took off when he had to and picked up some big plays for us."

Heffner has been hearing from a lot of the same schools that have contacted teammate Ellix Wilson, including SEC programs like Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee. He's currently participating in track and helped Melrose beat Memphis Fairley 67-64 in a meet last month by winning the 800 meters with a 2:06 time.

"He's running track and lifting weights," said Ingram. "He's doing things that will prepare him for the season. He'd like to weigh 190 going into the fall."

Obviously, Heffner is still a work in progress, but if he makes as much progress this season as he did last season, he'll end up on a lot of most wanted lists.

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