When true freshman Derrick Neal made the switch from offense to defense, team captain Ben Heeney initiated him with five words: Welcome to the Dark Side.
It’s the side you want to be on. Players on the other side run the risk of getting throttled by Heeney, who is having a terrific senior season.
A star running back at Hutchinson High, Heeney was born to play middle linebacker. Thanks to a blend of speed, drive and emotion, he ranks tied for sixth in the nation in solo tackles (6.8 per game) and tackles for loss (1.7 per game).
He’s the team’s emotional leader. Disappointment colored the mood after a 27-20 loss to Oklahoma State last Saturday in Memorial Stadium.
“The emotion was, we all really wanted to win that game for coach (Clint) Bowen as well as for us,” Heeney said. “To be so close and to let something like a kickoff return at the very end kind of change the outcome … as a defense we wanted to get back out there because we were stopping them every time they got on the field in the second half, and we thought we were going to stop them again and give our offense a chance to score.”
Now it’s onto the West Texas town of Lubbock, where Texas Tech will try to snap a four-game losing streak, and KU will attempt to do what it hasn’t done since winning in the West Texas town of El Paso. (Don’t blame me if Marty Robbins’ classic song loops in your head for the rest of the day. I didn’t compose it.)
“The losing streak, I don’t even know where the streak is at anymore. It’s obviously a really big number, but I think we have a pretty good chance this week to break the streak,” Heeney said.
Focusing on the here and now and not on putting an end to long-lasting symbols of futility, such as 29 consecutive losses outside of Lawrence, counts as one of many subtle differences in philosophy between Bowen and Charlie Weis.
“His practices are different from coach Weis’. I think, honestly, he has more efficient practices,” Heeney said. “Like, if we get done with a period, he won’t continue to run it just because there is time left on the clock. If he’s satisfied, we’ll move onto the next one. Sometimes, practice will even end 20 minutes early.”
Practices, which include more first-stringers-against-first-stringers time, come closer to simulating game conditions.
“The practices are more physical, but it’s not like we’re tackling each other every day, but I like the practices a lot better,” Heeney said.
The games? Much more competitive.