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Heinicke takes long, successful path to Georgia Dome debut

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Collins Hill graduate Taylor Heinicke (14) a sophomore quarterback at and Old Dominion University delivers a pass to a receiver against Georgia State University during CAA football action at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday. Heinicke had three passing touchdowns and 351 passing yards is their 53-27 victory over GSU.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Collins Hill graduate Taylor Heinicke (14) a sophomore quarterback at and Old Dominion University delivers a pass to a receiver against Georgia State University during CAA football action at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday. Heinicke had three passing touchdowns and 351 passing yards is their 53-27 victory over GSU.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Collins Hill graduate Taylor Heinicke (14) a sophomore quarterback at and Old Dominion University carries the ball upfield against Georgia State University during CAA football action at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday. Heinicke had three passing touchdowns and 351 passing yards is their 53-27 victory over GSU.

ATLANTA -- Despite being part of 26 wins in three seasons over his high school football career at Collins Hill, Taylor Heinicke never got a chance to play in the Georgia Dome.

The closest Old Dominion's sophomore quarterback got was one step short after his senior season ended with the Eagles' loss to eventual champion Brookwood in the 2010 Class AAAAA state semifinals.

Even when he came to the Dome with Old Dominion during its road game against Georgia State last year, he still had to wait his turn, sitting behind Thomas DeMarco.

But after taking over the starting job midway through his freshman season last year, it is now Heinicke's time.

And he finally got his chance to take to the Dome's turf floor when he returned to his hometown to take on Georgia State once more Saturday in the Monarchs' emphatic 53-27 win before a crowd of 12,293 that included dozens of family and friends.

"The goal in high school was to play at the Dome in the state championship," Heinicke said. "I was one game away my senior year. It was a tough, heartbreaking loss back then. Last year, Thomas was starting and he played the whole game. So, coming down and playing in the Dome in front of family and friends, it was a humbling experience."

It wasn't a perfect homecoming for Heinicke, who matched his career single-game high by throwing three interceptions -- a third of the total he'd thrown in his entire career coming into the game.

"I thought I played horribly -- one of the worst performances of the season, for sure," Heinicke said. "I don't know what it was -- if I was too comfortable with coming home. ... I definitely have a lot to work on in practice this week."

Georgia State might beg to differ.

Despite the interceptions, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound sophomore completed 28 of 42 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns -- the kind of outing ODU coaches and fans have come to expect during what has become a record-setting career for Heinicke.

"The one thing I'll talk to him about, particularly (today) after we watch the video, is (to) remind him that we're 8-1 right now, and that he's quite honestly the primary reason why we're 8-1," ODU coach Bobby Wilder said after Saturday's game. "Obviously, he played very well."

Indeed, Heinicke has played extremely well since assuming the starting job in the fifth game of ODU's schedule last year.

He went 211-for-307 with just one interception for 2,385 yards and 25 TDs in nine games in helping the Monrachs to the second round of the FCS playoffs last season.

And this season has been even better.

His crowning achievement may have been ODU's 64-61 win over New Hampshire on Sept. 22 at Foreman Field in Norfolk, Va., when Heinicke set seven national FCS records in throwing for 730 yards and five TDs on 55-of-79 passing.

That performance came a week after he completed 21 of 29 passes for 486 and seven scores during the Monarchs' 70-14 rout of Campbell.

After Saturday's outing against Georgia State, Heinicke leads the nation with 3,379 yards on 262-of-387 passing with 27 TDs against just 12 interceptions to become one of the leading candidates for the Walter Payton Award -- FCS' equivalent of the Heisman Trophy and lead ODU to its 8-1 record and a No. 5 national ranking.

While he envisioned eventually becoming a successful college quarterback, the numbers he's put up have come a lot sooner than he ever imagined they would when he took his first collegiate snap just over a year ago.

"Coming in last year, (the game) was a lot faster," Heinicke said. "(The players) were a lot bigger and faster people, and they know what they're doing. They don't mess up. So, last year, I was just trying to get used to the game. Coming in when Thomas got hurt, they dummied down the offense for me and really made it easy for me to be successful."

Wilder is also a little surprised at how quickly Heinicke has developed into an elite quarterback at the FCS level.

But from his early days of recruiting Heinicke at Collins Hill, the Monarchs' coach saw him as perfect fit for the progam's offense.

"When we're recruiting a quarterback, we study the (high school) program, we study the offense and we study the way that player is coached as much as we look at the highlight film," Wilder said. "What I learned about Coach (Kevin) Reach, and what I learned about the Collins Hill program, is the competition level ... it's almost like it's small college football. He threw for 4,200 yards running our system. ... So, it was evident based on that video he could do it.

"Now, none of us anticipated it was going to happen last year. We were in the fifth game and our starter, who'd been an excellent player for us, ... goes down with a sprained ankle, and Taylor comes in at halftime. What's impressed me the most is the fact that we were 7-2 with him last year as a starter. He took us to the second round (of the playoffs), and now we're 8-1 this year. So, he's started 18 games now, and we're 15-3. And we're playing against, in my opinion, the best (FCS) competition in the country (in the Colonial Athletic Association)."

Still, Saturday's win helped bring things full circle -- in a way -- for Heinicke.

His last shot to play in the Georgia Dome in high school was denied by a Brookwood team led by quarterback Ben McLane, who just happened to be under center for Georgia State on Saturday.

But aside from a few minutes reminiscing with his former rival, as well as getting to see many of the nearly 150 family members and friends that he and fellow Collins Hill grad Andrew Everett had coming to see the game, Saturday was all business.

"He's a good quarterback," Heinicke said of McLane, who was 13-of-32 for 226 yards with TD and two interceptions for the Panthers. "He's done a great job. It was good to see him again. I saw a whole bunch of people from high school. I've seen my friends and their families. It was really exciting, so my mind wasn't in the game at the beginning.

"At the same time, I knew I had to play. When we flew into Atlanta (on Friday), it was different. I don't know if that was a good or bad thing. This is a business trip for us."