Watching Ben Heeney play football is a bit like viewing a high-speed demolition derby. He has no problem sacrificing his body, throwing it into harm’s way at a very high speed. In fact, he appears to enjoy it quite a bit. Just don’t tell him to stand still and watch.
Heeney played so well as Kansas University’s starting middle linebacker as a sophomore in his first game experience on plays from scrimmage that he ranked third in the Big 12 in tackles (112), fifth in tackles for loss (12) and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors.
So why didn’t Heeney ever get a chance at even one play from scrimmage for the nation’s worst defense in 2011?
“I’d be standing out there in practice thinking, ‘Why did I burn this year?’ In practice, I literally did nothing at linebacker,” Heeney said. “After Week 4, I didn’t even get a chance to play any linebacker on the scout team. I’d stand on the sideline talking to people, waiting for that 20 minutes that the special teams practiced. Then I’d go back to chilling on the sideline.”
He said he asked former KU coach Turner Gill’s linebacker coach, whose name (Vantz Singletary) he had trouble remembering, if he could have some reps and said he was told, “I’ll tell you when to go in.”
“He pushed me aside and I never went in,” Heeney said.
Positive surprises can be difficult to find on a 1-11 football team, but Heeney clearly ranked first in that department in 2012 and outside linebacker Jake Love didn’t rank too far behind him. The way they played, both flying to the ball, it looked as if perhaps they had bonded the previous year on the scout team. But that wasn’t the case. While Love practiced with what Gill called the “show team,” Heeney stood on the sideline and watched the starters practice.
He took out his frustrations as a freshman on opposing return men as a gunner on the punt team and a head-hunter who sprinted directly to the ball on the kickoff team. He showcased impressive speed, which such a slow defense certainly could have used.
During his surprising sophomore season, Heeney drew consistent praise for his toughness, determination and athleticism from head coach Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Dave Campo. Both men cautioned he had a long way to go in terms of always knowing where to be and when. He consistently ran hard and hit hard, but sometimes he ran so hard he put himself out of position. He might have looked like he was born to play linebacker — a head stuck on top of a block of chiseled granite with no neck to speak of — but the truth was it wasn’t until the change in the coaching staff that Heeney started to learn basic linebacker lessons.
In playing for three consecutive state champions at Hutchinson High — the school’s fifth, sixth and seventh in a row — Heeney started at safety his sophomore and junior seasons and at fullback as a senior. Hutch had so much well-drilled depth at every position coach Randy Dreiling didn’t believe in using players both ways.
Heeney recalled an early season game against Derby his senior year when he ran for “about 270 yards” and scored five touchdowns, four on the ground and one on a 68-yard reception. The game was called at halftime because of lightning.
Despite his dominance and strong numbers on the stopwatch — he said he was hand-timed at 4.43 and 4.48 in the 40 at a summer camp at Kansas State heading into his senior season — scholarship offers didn’t come flying at him. Until KU offered in October of his senior season — “I accepted it right on the spot,” he said — Colorado State had been the only full ride from a Division I school. He wondered if that would have been different had he gone to exposure camps, not that it would have mattered. SEC powerhouses could have waged a bidding war for him and it wouldn’t have changed his destination.
“I always dreamt of playing at KU,” said Heeney, voted the defensive MVP of the spring game.
His father and two uncles played baseball for KU. His older brother and three cousins are students now and his mother and several aunts and uncles walked down the hill wearing a cap and gown.
He never dreamt of standing on the sideline in practice, a man in limbo, a football player eager to hit somebody and relegated to spectator status as a freshman, other than on special teams.
Once given the chance to play linebacker, Heeney flew all over the field hitting people. It felt so good he hasn’t stopped since.