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Jerrod Heard hopes to become the Texas starter at slot receiver

Now a fifth-year senior, the one-time savior at quarterback is trying to help his team at a different position.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, Vice Sports called then-Texas Longhorns quarterback Jerrod Heard the “most important player in college football.”

As a redshirt freshman, Heard had just set a single-game school record for total offense with 527 yards, besting even the most prolific performance by Longhorn legend Vince Young. A 45-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes to play electrified the home crowd in Austin and should have tied the game. Alas, Nick Rose missed the extra point and Texas lost.

Then Heard quickly lost that patina of savior at a position that still hasn’t experienced much success since Colt McCoy left the field at the Rose Bowl in early 2010 against Alabama in the national championship game.

Even at the time, Vice admitted that the expectations weren’t fair. And that certainly proved to be the case. Heard’s faults quickly became apparent — he struggled with his accuracy on short and medium-range passes and his downfield throws never lived up to the early potential he showed. Advanced scouting and adjustments by opposing defenses limited Heard’s electric running ability.

A concussion limited Heard down the stretch and he finished the season with five passing touchdowns and five interceptions. He failed to record a rushing touchdown after that supposed breakout performance against Cal.

After Heard suffered a shoulder injury during spring practice in 2016 and fell behind Shane Buechele and Tyrone Swoopes, he chose to change positions early in fall camp.

Since then, Heard has been a selfless team player, seamlessly giving up his identity as a quarterback, even though he lost critical repetitions at wide receiver last season when he was forced to serve as the emergency quarterback with only two scholarship players at the position.

He doesn’t even lobby the coaches to throw the football any more.

“It’s been a minute since I’ve thrown a pass now,” Heard said last week. “I’m kind of scared to put that in his ear.”

Instead, the focus is on the team as he enters his final season on the Forty Acres.

“It’s hard for me to be a selfish guy and tell those coaches, ‘No, I don’t want to do this or I don’t want to do that,’” Heard said. “As a teammate, I want to put us in the greatest position to win — period.”

That’s been Heard’s calling card for years now — he could have sulked when he was on the outside looking in on the quarterback competition and bolted for another school. Instead, he began working on his wide receiver skills.

After spending the last two seasons primarily working from the flanker position, Heard is now practicing in the slot. Back in high school, Heard posted a shuttle time that was within .1 seconds of his 40-yard dash, so it’s an open question whether he has the short-area quickness and change-of-direction ability that helps players succeed in that role.

He certainly has the experience with the football in his hands to became an intriguing option on jet sweeps, which could take a larger role now that co-offensive coordinator Herb Hand is with the program.

With Reggie Hemphill-Mapps and Armanti Foreman now departed, there’s a major need in the slot. Given the fact that the coaching staff is pursuing Wake Forest graduate transfer Tabari Hines, who visited over the weekend, it’s possible they don’t see a solution on campus currently.

Heard quickly made an impression at wide receiver with a 68-yard catch against Notre Dame to open the 2016 season, then caught two touchdown passes against UTEP the following week. Unfortunately he hasn’t done much since. A 37-yard catch against Iowa State that season stands out, but he hasn’t produced a play longer than 25 yards since then.

However things shake out for Heard on the field this fall, one thing remains clear — Heard will be an asset to head coach Tom Herman and his staff behind the scenes. And Heard believes that the program is headed in the right direction.

“With this team, it’s capable,” he said. “What we did last season, how we finished strong and won that bowl game, it shined a light on us that we’ve never had before in a long time. It’s going in a positive way and I’m excited for the team.”

For the fifth-year senior, that’s the only thing that really matters.