For Jeff Heath, return to Canton a reminder of how he made Cowboys' roster

OXNARD, Calif. -- It’s easy to dismiss the Hall of Fame Game as meaningless. Just don’t tell that to Jeff Heath.

In 2013, the last time the Dallas Cowboys played in the NFL’s preseason opener, Heath was an undrafted free agent out of Saginaw Valley State, unknown to just about everybody.

“Probably was not a guy that we thought would make our team his first year,” coach Jason Garrett said.

But when the coaches reviewed the game on tape, Garrett was stunned.

“One of my real memories of him is watching the tape the next day, the kickoff reel and he literally is 10 yards ahead of everybody on the kickoff,” Garrett said. “[Coaches] are looking at each other like, ‘Who is that?’ He really showed up in that game. He’s a great example to the rest of our team. It really doesn’t matter where you came from, when you were drafted, what school you went to. You’re going to get an opportunity here, and if you take advantage of it, you’re going to get more of them.”

Heath can smile thinking back to that game now. He has the benefit of a four-year contract he signed a year ago and the inside track to a starting spot at safety this season. But there was no smiling then. He made two stops on defense in 40 snaps and one on special teams in 16 snaps.

“I was really lucky that we got that game my rookie year because the starters didn’t play at all,” Heath said. “I really wanted to make a good first impression in live action like that and I think I made the biggest impact on special teams in that game just because I was trying to show my speed and my instincts and being around the ball.”

Heath returns to Canton, Ohio, Thursday as a potential starter on the Cowboys' defense. He ended up starting nine games as a rookie, but that was more out of necessity than the team’s desire to play him. This year it is different. With the departure of Barry Church, Heath has taken all of the first-team snaps in training camp.

Two years ago he led the Cowboys in interceptions with two, despite spotty playing time on defense. He had one interception in last year’s regular season, but in Dallas' playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers he had an interception of Aaron Rodgers and a second wiped out because of a penalty. He also had a sack, a quarterback pressure and a pass deflection.

That performance gave the Cowboys confidence that he can be more than just a special-teamer.

“Every time he gets an opportunity to go in the game and play on defense, he does something,” Garrett said. “He does something positive for our team. That accumulation of work and production that he’s had over the course of his career has given him more opportunities, and he’s handled the opportunity we’ve given him so far really, really well.”

He might remain a special-teamer at heart. He remains on every special-teams unit, but his snaps have been cut back some with his added defensive responsibilities.

“I think special teams is super important and it’s kind of overlooked by a lot of people,” Heath said. “They just think anybody out there can get the job done or you don’t have to have your best special-teams players out there. But it’s the exact opposite. If you look at the game where there’s a big special-teams play one way or the other, those go a long way in winning and losing games.”