Sioux Falls Jefferson's Thomas Heiberger is South Dakota's No. 1 football recruit
Linebacker garnered seven FBS offers in seven days
SIOUX FALLS — Last week on National Signing Day, the Class 11AAA state champion Jefferson Cavalier football team was well-represented.
Wide receiver Griffin Wilde and safety Beau Giblin are going to South Dakota State. London Kolb and Sawyer Huntimer will play at USF, and Sam Siegfried is headed to Augustana.
For Cavs linebacker Thomas Heiberger, it was a proud day. And one that gave him a window into his own extremely bright future.
“It was fun to see all my guys in their new colors,” Heiberger said. “And thinking about how that will be me in a year — it's exciting.”
Heiberger didn’t partake, because he’s only a junior. But his day will come, and soon, as he’s quickly become the hottest recruit in South Dakota.
Just before signing day, Heiberger received a flurry of major program offers — seven from power conferences in seven days — officially announcing the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder as one of the most coveted linebackers in the nation.
Texas Tech was first. Then came Wisconsin, Nebraska, Washington, Vanderbilt, Oklahoma and Kansas. Kansas State has since offered, joining Western Michigan, South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa. He’s visited several other major programs who could still join the fray.
“It’s been kind of crazy,” Heiberger admitted.
The son of a former baseball star, Heiberger expected to follow in his father Jake’s footsteps and play college baseball. And on the gridiron, Heiberger has been a quarterback since he started playing the sport. So he’s a bit of a late bloomer, at least as a linebacker. But as the sudden attention indicates, he’s a quick learner, with an incredibly bright future.
“When he came in as a sophomore, the first day in the weight room, it was just like, ‘This kid’s different’,” said Cavs coach Vince Benedetto. “With his size, his measurables, I mean, there aren’t a lot of 6-4, 215-pound kids who can move and bend like he does. When you pair that with his football knowledge and his maturity, it makes sense that he’s getting these offers.”
Heiberger spent his freshman year at Roosevelt, playing quarterback on the freshman team. He made the move to Jefferson for that school’s inaugural year, and served as the backup quarterback to Taylen Ashley, while working in on defense. When Ashley was hurt in the regular-season finale, Heiberger got the start at quarterback. But Ashley (who will play basketball at USF) was one of the top signal-callers in the state. So the Jefferson coaches encouraged Heiberger to focus on defense heading into the 2022 season.
With Ashley leading the way on offense, the Cavs roared through the season undefeated, bringing Jefferson a state title in just their second season of existence. Heiberger was far from the only star on defense, but it didn’t take long for him to establish himself.
“The first game of the year he kind of started to realize how good he could be, and then in our second game against Washington he really took off,” Benedetto said. “We moved him down to D-end a little bit, but no matter where we put him he made plays. It kind of got to the point that we decided we’re just not going to take him off the field no matter what.”
Colleges started to take notice. SDSU was the first to offer. NDSU came soon after.
Heiberger’s father, Jake, knew what that meant.
“When he got offers from the top two teams in FCS that early, I kind of had a feeling there would be more coming,” said Jake, who was a standout catcher for Post 15 East and later played at Trinidad Junior College and South Dakota State. “Our family has always been a baseball family, so we just kind of thought that would be his chance to play college sports. But once all these coaches started showing interest it was like, 'OK, he’s gonna play football.' He’s doing a pretty good job of keeping his head on straight for a 17-year-old. I’ve been pretty impressed with how he’s handling himself.”
That maturity is part of the appeal. The size is Heiberger’s best attribute. The speed and flexibility that he brings to that size makes him special. He could put on 30 pounds and be an edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme, or play at 220 and be a more traditional outside linebacker in a 4-3. He’s proven in a short period of time that there’s little he doesn’t possess the physical capacity to do.
But his intangibles have been what prompted schools to not just kick the tires, but make an offer.
“He’s really grounded in who he is,” Benedetto said. “None of this attention has affected how hard he works or who he is as a person. He’s a 4.0 student. His English teacher said he’s the best writer she’s ever had in class. That kind of thing just seals the deal with (colleges).”
Heiberger has another year to improve his stock, but wouldn’t mind picking a school before his senior season to eliminate the distraction of recruiting. He still might end up being the Cavs’ starting quarterback next year, too, and that would require extra work and attention. Jefferson graduated several star players but still has a strong unit coming back. Moving back under center would be ironic, as Heiberger might not be getting these offers if Ashley hadn’t been blocking his path the last two seasons. But he’s far from a finished product on defense, and has high hopes for 2023.
“I’m a speedy guy around the edge, but there’s things I’m not as good at yet that I’d like to work on,” he says. “I want to get bigger, be able to plug holes when I’m playing inside the box. I’ve had coaches tell me I get off the edge well, and coaches who told me they see me as a guy who can drop back in coverage, too. But getting after the quarterback is my favorite thing to do and what I think I’m best at.”
Thomas credits Jake, who played football for O’Gorman in the mid-1990s, for pushing him on the field and in the classroom, and adds that his mother, Megan, and step-parents Kristen and Dave have also been instrumental in assisting his rise from baseball player to quarterback to FBS prospect. Thomas gave up playing summer baseball for the Sioux Falls Cyclones, but will still play for the Jefferson high school team this spring.
That’s been an adjustment for a baseball family, but one the Heibergers are learning to enjoy.
“I was playing in empty baseball parks in college, he could be playing in 80,000-seat stadiums,” Jake said. “Right now the only advice I’m giving him is to dream big. It’s his decision and we’re going to support whatever he decides.”
So who might Heiberger pick?
Nebraska and Wisconsin have new coaches that could be intriguing. Oklahoma is one of the most successful programs in college football. Kansas State is on the rise under former NDSU coach Chris Klieman, while there’s the local connection at Washington, as the Huskies are coached by native South Dakotan and former USF coach Kalen DeBoer. Jake Heiberger and DeBoer know each other from their amateur baseball days. And both of the Heibergers speak highly of the Jackrabbit program, fresh off its first FCS national championship.
“I’m looking for a school that feels like family and a home,” Heiberger said. “I want to have relationships with all the coaches, not just at my position. Distance has been brought up but I don’t think I’m going to take that into consideration too much. I’m going to do what’s best for me and feel all these schools out and whatever feels best, I’m going to take that opportunity and try to be the best I can be.”