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'Flexible' Heban makes his Hoosier mark

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For more on Indiana athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Change no problem for pitcher turned safety

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - 5:50 am

BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana do-it-all Greg Heban insists with a smile he has no Hoosier basketball future.

Or does he?

“You'd be surprised at how many people back home ask me about that, like I would talk to (basketball coach Tom Crean) about walking on,” the junior safety says.

Given the basketball Hoosiers are a preseason No. 1 with enough depth for two teams, walk-on opportunities are likely limited.

“I don't think, with the way they're going,” Heban says, “I'd make much of a difference.”

At 6-1, Heban can dunk a basketball from a flat-footed stance, and he could once play a pretty mean game. But can he still hit a jumper?

“I don't know. I haven't played basketball in a year.”

Heban, once a football-basketball-baseball wonder at Delta High School, arrived at IU as a left-handed pitcher. Now he's a starting safety coming off a career-high 13 tackles against Navy. He leads the Hoosiers in tackles (48) and interceptions (two), and is second in tackles for loss (4.5).

“He's given us some flexibility,” co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory says. “He's a tough young man. The production he's given us, his preparation, his work ethic, I'm pleased with his progress.

“He has to keep coming. He has a long way to go, but he's given us some good, quality play.”

Coach Kevin Wilson said during his Monday night radio show that Heban “played really well” against Navy, that “he made a boatload of one-on-one plays” and that “we had significantly fewer missed tackles and Greg was a big part of that.”

Heban played nickel back early in the season, but was moved to starting safety before the Ohio State game a couple of weeks ago.

“We've had a couple of injuries at safety, and we've gone back to playing a little more base defense and not subbing as much into our nickel package,” Mallory says. “You want your best 11 players out there. If we're not playing a lot of nickel, then you don't want one of your better players on the bench.

“We feel he's an every-down guy and, whether as a safety or nickel, we want to see him on the field.”

If Heban's transformation from struggling baseball pitcher to intramural football phenom to starting safety seems improbable, well, there's something to be said for living a dream, even if that dream hasn't produced many victories.

Heban's 90 mph fastball might have led to Hoosier baseball success if he could have found the strike zone more often. Still, he did well enough in the spring of 2010 to throw 1.3 innings and give up two hits and one run.

But his intramural football team, which included baseball coach Tracy Smith, created an opportunity. Smith watched Heban make plays all over the field, which wasn't surprising given Heban had been an all-state football player at Delta. As a senior he scored 21 touchdowns, rushed for 1,095 yards and had a state-leading 11 interceptions.

Recognizing Heban's baseball prospects were limited, Smith told Heban he should consider walking onto the football team. Smith also told then-football coach Bill Lynch about him.

Lynch was receptive to the idea. So was Heban.

“When I was playing intramurals," Heban says, "it sparked memories of how much I missed football. How much fun it was. I came to a couple of football games and saw the atmosphere and how much different it was than high school.”

Heban walked on. You might have thought, with a big-time arm, he'd have taken a shot at quarterback.

“I don't know where the ball would go,” he says with a smile. “I was more of a thrower than a pitcher. Accuracy was definitely an issue.”

So he went the cornerback/special teams rout and wound up playing in all 12 games in 2010. He totaled 40 tackles, broke up five passes and intercepted a pass.

Last season he earned a football scholarship, started all 12 games, and finished with 62 tackles, one sack and two interceptions. He broke up six passes.

That set the stage for this season's safety transition.

“(The change) hasn't been as bad as I'd thought it would be,” he says. “When I was back at cornerback one thing I did was understand the other positions as well. Shifting around put me in the perspective of the other positions in terms of where I was supposed to be. The coaches have done a great job of preparing me as quickly as they can.”

Preparations continue with Saturday's game at Illinois (2-6 overall, 0-4 in the Big Ten). The Hoosiers (2-5, 0-3) have lost five straight games, but the last three losses have come by four, three and one point.

“We have to keep a positive attitude,” Heban says. “If we start to get negative, it's going to start going down hill. We haven't gotten the wins we wanted, but we're coming along. We're getting more physical as a team. We have to keep pushing.”