In the box score, it’ll go down as a tackle and forced fumble in the Kansas football team’s 30-20 loss to Kansas State last weekend.
But it’s a play that will be replayed by KU coaches for a long time and another highlight to add to the college careers of star defensive linemen Dorance Armstrong Jr. and Daniel Wise.
During K-State’s first drive, quarterback Alex Delton rolled out to his right and completed a pass to speedy receiver Byron Pringle along the right sideline. With good footwork, Pringle juked past KU cornerback Hasan Defense and started to run in open field. Pringle was looking toward defenders on his left when Armstrong delivered a strong hit from behind to jar the ball loose. The ball rolled ahead another 10 yards before Wise was the first one to dive on the ball, eventually recovered by Tyrone Miller.
“That’s what we show our younger kids,” KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen said. “There’s reason everyone talks about these two, it ain’t just because they have talent. It’s because they play harder than you other guys with less talent and they do. They set the bar. Those two are pretty special.”
When Delton released the pass, Armstrong was running parallel to him at the line of scrimmage, likely responsible if he tried to scramble. Wise was about five yards downfield because Delton rolled out to the opposite side of KU’s pass pressure, which shifted to the left side of the field on a fake run play.
Once Pringle secured the catch at the 35-yard line, Armstrong was about 10 yards behind him. Armstrong’s tackle was more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage and Wise sprinted nearly 35 yards for the fumble recovery, outracing several players to the ball.
“If I feel like I can catch them, I’m going to get them,” Armstrong said. “When I turned to see them where the ball was at, I felt like he was right there so I went and got him and made the play.”
Wise added of Armstrong: “That’s just what he does. He’s a guy with a high motor and always running to the ball. I just tried to be there to pick it up.”
Watching the play during film sessions afterward, Armstrong said it was a little different than how he saw it on the field. He didn’t think he ran as far as he did.
“It felt like a big play,” Armstrong said. “The moment I felt the ball come out and I saw my team get it, it was just a change of energy throughout the entire game.”
The turnover on K-State’s first possession wasn’t enough to help the Jayhawks earn their first Big 12 win of the season. But Armstrong and Wise both said they felt a different vibe on the sideline during the game, one week after Wise gave a speech in the locker room following a blowout loss to TCU.
“I wasn’t so much thinking about I have to back up what I say,” Wise said. “Just playing my heart out and that’s kind of what I told the guys, ‘Play your heart out, play hard, play tough and do what you’ve got to do.’”
When a football team enters its bye week with a 1-3 record, there’s obviously plenty of areas that coaches will try to address with extra time in practice.
For the Kansas football team, one area of concern is third down defense, which really hurt the Jayhawks in a 56-34 loss to West Virginia. Quarterback Will Grier helped the Mountaineers to 35 points in the first half, which included a 5-for-7 mark on third downs. On plays that were 3rd-and-8 or longer, Grier completed half of his passes.
The Jayhawks have a mostly inexperienced secondary, which is learning on the fly with junior college transfer cornerbacks Shak Taylor and Hasan Defense, along with sophomore safeties Mike Lee and Bryce Torneden. When meeting with the media, the group of defensive backs usually lament their communication or failing to stay true to their technique for some of the breakdowns.
But a young secondary hasn’t been helped by its pass rush. The Jayhawks only have three sacks through four games, and one of those was an intentional grounding penalty against Southeast Missouri State.
Those three sacks are tied for the second-lowest mark in the country, and it's extra disappointing for a defensive line group that entered the season with high expectations.
"It’s like we were watching the quarterback instead of actually beating the man in front of us," said junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong, who is still searching for his first sack. "It showed on film. You can actually see that happening on film.”
Armstrong, the Big 12's preseason defensive player of the year, entered the year hoping to challenge the program's single-season sack total. Against West Virginia, he believes he missed as many as four potential sacks.
"When you get the opportunity to get there, you have to cash those checks," said Armstrong, who has a team-high five quarterback hurries. "Lately, as a unit, we haven’t been doing that. We’ve been letting them get away with third down completions, fourth down completions. That’s just not us. We have to get back to making those plays."
Of course, with all of the accolades Armstrong received in the offseason, that's only added attention to him on the field. The Jayhawks have tried to line him up in different spots, including the interior, but opposing offenses always make sure they are aware of where he goes. At the end of last year, he was receiving mostly one-on-one matchups. Now he's facing double teams and even triple teams.
Armstrong remains confident that he he will solve any of the problems that have slowed him down. He compared himself to a defensive back with his eyes in the wrong place.
"I’m seeing too much," Armstrong said. "I see the slide coming my way. I see the back coming my way. I’m just trying to find other ways to get around it versus me just beating the man in front of me. That’s just my issue myself.
"It's tough. It's a good experience. It makes me a better player. It makes me a more humble player, more determined player."
In the third quarter against West Virginia, when KU's defense held the Mountaineers without any points, the Jayhawks had three stops on third down. For example, on a 3rd-and-8 play, Armstrong and fellow defensive end Isaiah Bean helped collapse the pocket on a four-man rush. Without much time to look downfield, Grier aims for his check down target, running back Kennedy McKoy.
Armstrong didn’t have enough time to reach Grier, but he put his hand up at the perfect time to tip the ball and force an incomplete pass. On the ensuing possession, the Jayhawks scored a touchdown and cut the score to 35-27.
But there were far too many breakdowns on the defensive line and secondary.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, West Virginia had 3rd-and-8 from its own 30. There was a decent pass rush created by Armstrong, but Grier had enough time in the pocket to deliver a pass to a wide-open Marcus Simms for a 25-yard gain.
Coming out of the bye week, with an opportunity to self-evaluate film more often, the defensive line is confident it can play closer to its preseason expectations against Texas Tech.
"After you see it for so many weeks in a row, you have to stop at some point," Armstrong said. "I think we found that point where it has to end."
When the Kansas football team kicks off the 2017 season against SEMO on Saturday night, Kansas junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. will have plenty of attention on him.
That comes with the territory of being named the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year. But beyond the fans, Armstrong has intrigued NFL scouts and is projected as a potential first round pick.
In Sports Illustrated’s 2018 mock draft, created by Chris Burke, Armstrong is slotted as the 23rd pick in the first round, which would send him hypothetically to the Buffalo Bills. Armstrong is eligible for the 2018 draft next spring if he chooses to forgo his senior season.
“Kansas is a combined 2–22 over Armstrong’s first two seasons, so you’re forgiven if you have not seen him play,” Burke wrote. “Make a point to do so this year. He can be a solo wrecking crew in attack mode, with the speed to go sideline to sideline.”
The Big 12, which had its fewest draft picks in conference history in April, is listed with five first-rounders in SI’s mock draft: Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph (sixth), Texas offensive tackle Connor Williams (13th), Armstrong, OSU receiver James Washington (28th) and Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson (32nd).
In April’s draft, the only first-rounder among Big 12 players was former Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Only five players were picked in the first three rounds, well below the players picked among other Power Five conferences.
Bleacher Report’s draft analyst Matt Miller loves what he’s seen on tape of Armstrong. He called KU’s star defensive end, “one of my favorite athletes in the entire class. The dude is long-armed, extremely quick and has the moves to beat tackles off the edge.”
In his preseason Top 25 Big Board of draft-eligible players, Miller ranks Armstrong 18th overall — the fourth-highest defensive end.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked Armstrong third among underclassmen defensive ends, but just outside of his preseason Big Board of Top 25 prospects. Of course, things will change and new players will emerge once the season progresses, but it shows the amount of respect that Armstrong is receiving from scouts.
When Armstrong is asked about his draft stock and playing in the NFL, he brushes it off and emphasizes his only focus is the upcoming season.
"I'm not really thinking about that right now," Armstrong said in the spring. "I want to actually experience what winning in college feels like. That’s where I’m looking right now.”
From the people who watch Armstrong in practice and film sessions each day, they know he’s telling the truth when he says he’s not worried about next year’s NFL draft.
“Dorance, he’s not an ego guy, he’s not a this-is-about-me guy,” KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen said. “He truly has embraced trying to master his trade. He has a very level head on his shoulders.”
Aqib Talib, who will be inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor on Saturday, was the last KU football player to be picked in the first round of an NFL Draft — back in 2008.
Frisco, Texas — It’s difficult to make up time in recruiting, but that’s exactly what Kansas football coach David Beaty and his staff had to do when he first arrived on campus.
Looking over to junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr., the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year, at the conference’s media days Monday, Beaty said it was a “miracle” that he was suiting up for the Jayhawks.
When Beaty was hired in December 2014, he had about a month to solidify his recruiting class prior to Signing Day. Back then, Armstrong was seen as an undersized defensive end and still looking for a landing spot.
Searching for hidden gems, Beaty and his staff identified Armstrong as one of their top targets. But they were still reaching out to Armstrong much, much later than most of the schools recruiting him.
Armstrong remembered when he received text messages from former KU defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux, who is now at Oklahoma, and realized that he watched him at one of his basketball games.
“I was like, ‘He was at a basketball game?’” Armstrong said. “(Thibodeaux) motivated me so much. He spoke positive to me all the time about what I could be and just put that in my head. I think I built on everything that he told me. I just kept that mindset of being humble and always wanted more.”
Following his final prep football season, Armstrong immediately turned his attention to his basketball team. Playing in the low post for North Shore High in Houston, Armstrong averaged 7.2 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds. His school won a state championship in his junior year.
How much ground did Kansas have to make up in recruiting?
Armstrong said he didn’t have a relationship with Beaty or really anyone from Kansas before the start of his basketball season.
“I think coach Beaty came to my high school, but he came for someone else,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t remember him at the time.”
One of the things that drew Armstrong to Kansas was the chance to play defensive end.
It seems like an obvious decision now, but some schools tried to convince Armstrong, who showed up to campus weighing around 210 pounds, to move to linebacker because of his size.
“I never played linebacker,” Armstrong said. “I was always a D-end. I kind of made myself stay at that same spot.”
During one in-home visit, Kansas coaches Clint Bowen and Thibodeaux were visiting with Armstrong and his family when assistant coaches from Missouri showed up outside of the home. The KU coaches did their best to stall, forcing the Missouri coaches to wait outside.
Focused on playing throughout the basketball season, Armstrong was on a limited schedule in terms of making visits to schools.
After traveling to Kansas, he decided it was the only place he wanted to check out.
“My mom came on the visit and she loved it,” Armstrong said. “She loved the coaches. Even the players made her feel like they were going to take care of me. That’s what they were doing. We don’t bring anyone in to just leave them hanging.”
Three years later and Armstrong arrived back in his home state as the face of the Kansas football program.
“We had literally a month to recruit this kid — a month,” Beaty said. “It was difficult because Missouri came in late. Thankfully they didn’t go on that visit because it made it a little bit easier for us.”
On a team that posted a 2-10 record, it’s not easy to stand out for individual accomplishments.
But everybody took notice of Kansas sophomore defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr., and he was recognized with first-team All-Big 12 honors Wednesday, the first unanimous selection since the Jayhawks joined the conference.
Armstrong filled statistical leaderboards with 10 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He added 56 tackles (40 solo), which are pretty high marks for a defensive lineman.
It’s important to remember that Armstrong started the season pretty slowly. There was a knee injury on the first day of fall camp that KU coach David Beaty thought was an ACL tear. The Jayhawks brought him along slowly — the smart decision — and he followed with a dominant stretch of eight sacks in six games.
At the beginning of the year, the 6-foot-4, 246-pound Houston native said he had a goal of six sacks this year. That shows how much improvement he made throughout the season.
What makes him such a talented player?
Here’s a breakdown of some of his top plays during KU’s 24-21 win over Texas. When Armstrong was asked after the game if it was his best of the season, he responded, “Definitely. Looking to have more though.”
In the first of six clips below, Armstrong is helped out with strong coverage downfield. Texas quarterback Shane Buechele rolls out to his right, but there’s nobody open. Armstrong makes the most of the play by using his speed to chase Buechele down.
If the first sack was a coverage sack, Armstrong’s second sack of the first half was thanks to his pass-rushing ability. Look how difficult he makes life for Texas junior tackle Brandon Hodges (6-4, 310). First, Hodges has to respect Armstrong’s speed on the perimeter to make sure Armstrong doesn’t just go right around him. Armstrong makes a couple of jukes to create separation and hit Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to force a fumble.
One of the bonuses of a player like Armstrong is that along with elite-level speed, he’s still pretty strong. That means the Jayhawks could afford to line him up all over the field. On this play, KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen calls up a play with Armstrong lined up over the middle and Texas’ left guard barely gets a hand on him on his way to the backfield.
For all of the talk about Armstrong’s pass rushes, he still deserves a lot of credit for his help in the run game. This is a short clip, but Armstrong is double-teamed by Hodges and tight end Caleb Bluiett. Look how well Armstrong holds his ground, stays in his gap and slows down D’Onta Freeman. Also if you note the score and time, Texas was five yards from a first down and kneeling the ball to seal a potential win.
Here’s another stop in the run game. Now KU defensive end Damani Mosby (#13) and defensive tackle DeeIsaac Davis did the dirty work on this stop, filling the gap up the middle, on the first play of overtime. But Armstrong shows his speed getting to Freeman, refusing to let him bounce a run outside.
Then of course there was the play that won the game in overtime — Buechele’s interception to Mike Lee (setting up Matthew Wyman's game-winning kick). Armstrong forces Buechele to move around the pocket with a great bull rush around the edge. He couldn’t pull down Beuchele for the sack, but forcing the QB out of the pocket is one of the factors in the overthrow to Lee.
Those are just some of the many plays that Armstrong made, which helped KU make major strides of the defensive side of the ball this season and earned him first-team All-Big 12 recognition.
For a quick personal story, a few summers ago, I was waiting in line for a haircut and Armstrong was waiting on several teammates to finish up with their haircuts. I didn't know anything about Armstrong — this was the summer before his freshman year. But he addressed everybody with "Yes, sir," and "No, sir," which happens in barbershops as often as fistfights in churches.
A couple of days later, KUSports.com columnist Tom Keegan was talking about KU's top freshmen for the upcoming year and he mentioned that coaches were raving about Armstrong on the defensive line. I laughed. Armstrong weighed about 215 pounds when he arrived to campus, so I thought he was way too small for defensive end and Keegan must've mistaken Armstrong for somebody else.
Fast forward two years and Armstrong, with an extra 30 pounds or so, has proven to everybody that he's more than capable of playing on the defensive line.