When you think of football players who grew up in the state of Wisconsin, the first vision is of a hulking, beef- and cheese-fed offensive lineman.
So, one look at Kole Heckendorf, the skinny 6-foot-2 wide receiver from the north-central Wisconsin community of Mosinee, and the quick impression is of a sure-handed, slow-footed possession receiver.
North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl has heard it all before. Asked to compare Heckendorf to anyone playing in the NFL, Bohl paused and said: "I'd have a hard time doing that because you initially think he's a small-town kid from Wisconsin, but all of a sudden, you see him with that big-play ability."
Heckendorf, who holds Wisconsin single-season records with 116 receptions and 1,714 receiving yards and career records with 235 receptions, 3,831 yards and 36 touchdowns, left as the Bison's career leader in receptions (178) and receiving yards (2,732). His career average of 15.3 yards per reception — including 18.1 as a senior — is the byproduct of being timed at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at North Dakota State's pro day.
When Heckendorf was passed over during the draft, coming to Green Bay was a no-brainer. He grew up cheering for the Green and Gold, and attended his first game when the coaches' senior gift was a ticket to the Packers-Lions finale at Lambeau. When the Packers didn't draft a receiver, signing with them just made sense.
"It was really exciting," Heckendorf told Packer Report at the recent rookie camp. "At the end of the draft, I got a call from the Packers saying they wanted to sign me as a free agent, and I didn't have to think twice. I had a couple other opportunities but my agent said the Packers were a good choice for me and I couldn't agree more."
As a senior, Heckendorf was slowed for much of the season with a turf toe, an injury that snapped a streak of 32 consecutive games with a catch. Still, he had team highs of 41 catches, 744 yards and an 18.1-yard average.
"He made a ton of big plays for us," Bohl said on Wednesday. "He possesses more physical skills than maybe his physique may show. He'll time out very well. He's got a great vertical jump and great concentration. I feel like he was an excellent receiver for us. Beyond that, he battled turf toe for about eight weeks this year and is willing to certainly play through injury, which is admirable."
Bohl said Heckendorf has "excellent" hands and is "wirey strong" — a strength that wouldn't be evident when looking at the 192-pounder.
"Many times, I've seen him break a slant route and then simply run away from everybody on the field," Bohl said. "You'd look and go, ‘How did he just do that?' He's much stronger than what you might think."
Working in Heckendorf's advantage is North Dakota State runs the West Coast Offense, so learning the offense shouldn't be a major obstacle as he tries to earn a spot at the Packers' deepest position.
"They're really deep at receiver and they have a bunch of guys that are really good and some guys on the practice squad who are real good," he said. "But I can't worry about anything besides what I can do. Just take it one day at a time and work hard."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.