LAWRENCE — In the opening weeks of practice, Kansas linebackers coach DeMontie Cross kept delivering the same message to sophomore linebacker Ben Heeney.
When Heeney flew toward the football with reckless abandon … slow down. When the play was still developing … slow down. When Heeney’s natural football instincts took over … slow down.
For the most part, Heeney has always been a football player who’s known one speed: full-throttle fast. And for the most part, it’s worked. When Heeney was helping the Hutchinson High dynasty pile up state titles as an all-state running back, or when he was making hustle plays on special teams last year as a KU freshman, Heeney was the type of player coaches could point to and say: This kid plays at the right speed.
“You can’t measure the heart that he plays with,” Cross said. “The kid is relentless.”
During the last few months, however, Heeney has had to put a restrictor plate on his inner motor. After Heeney was recruited to KU as an outside linebacker by former coach Turner Gill, the new Kansas coaching staff took a look at Heeney and decided that his skills would be better suited at middle linebacker in the Jayhawks’ defense. Still, the talent was raw. And Cross went to work explaining that a middle linebacker’s first job is to read keys and diagnose plays.
“When I was first learning (the position),” Heeney said. “I would just see the ball and try to run to the ball full speed and try to make a play. But with middle linebacker, you can’t make a play every time.”
In his second season on campus, Heeney is doing more than just manning a new position. With senior transfer Anthony McDonald sidelined because of an injury, Heeney won the starting job at middle linebacker during fall camp. When KU opened the season last Saturday with a 31-17 victory over South Dakota State, Heeney finished with five tackles in his first career start. He also continued his stellar play on special teams, downing a punt at the 1 in the first quarter.
“He has the speed, the hustle, the toughness,” Cross said. “He has all the attributes of a linebacker you want. But his ‘key and diagnose’ can be off at times, because he’s trying to do everything so fast.”
KU coach Charlie Weis has said that McDonald probably will move back up the depth chart when he is fully healthy, but Heeney will get another opportunity to play substantial snaps on Saturday against Rice. And each week provides a little more time to become comfortable at the new position.
“There’s always good and bad,” Heeney said. “But people always say the biggest jump in a team is from week one to week two.”
Two years ago, Heeney was still a 6-foot-tall, 205-pound power running back. These days, he’s bulked up to more than 225 pounds. Cross believes that Heeney can add more weight over time. But for now, Heeney is learning that his speed can be an asset at middle linebacker — if he finds the proper way to channel it.
“You have to read your key and fit where you’re supposed to fit,” Heeney said. “That way, the defense works. I’m now getting to where I’m supposed to go, instead of just trying to make a play every time.”