LAWRENCE — Maybe, if things had been different, Dexter McDonald would be playing college basketball right now. That would have been just fine. That was his first love, anyway, and the sport generally loved him back.
He was a 6-foot-2 point guard, good enough to start at Rockhurst High in Kansas City, Mo., talented enough to attract scholarship offers from some small colleges in the Kansas City area.
But Nathan Scheelhaase saw something different. Scheelhaase was the senior quarterback at Rockhurst, on his way to signing with Illinois, and he also was one of McDonald’s basketball teammates. In the months before McDonald’s junior year, the Rockhurst football team had a hole at cornerback. Scheelhaase kept nagging.
“Nathan was on me,” McDonald says.
Maybe McDonald’s late arrival to football helps explain his career at Kansas. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work out the first time around. Maybe that’s why, two years ago, McDonald let distractions get in the way of football.
“It was something that I was able to play, and I wasn’t necessarily bad at,” McDonald says. “But I didn’t have the love for it yet.”
In late 2011, after his redshirt freshman season, McDonald was forced to leave KU and work on his academics at Butler Community College. He enjoyed the year at Butler, mostly because it gave him a chance to focus on school and football. He needed that year, he says, to really learn to love the game.
“I finally had the chance to just practice football every day and not have anything around me to distract me,” McDonald says. “That’s when I think I finally started loving the game of football.”
One year later, McDonald is back on the field for Kansas, starting at cornerback. As KU prepares to play host to No. 6 Baylor at 6 p.m. Saturday, McDonald is tied for third in the Big 12 with 1.50 passes defended per game. After a year away from Kansas, he has been one of the most important additions from a large junior college recruiting class.
He also wants more.
“I don’t feel like I’ve honestly accomplished anything, from where my mindset is,” McDonald says. “I have so much more I want to do for myself and to help my team. But I definitely feel like I put in a lot of hard work and it doesn’t surprise me that I’m playing OK so far this year.”
On the whole, the Kansas secondary has been slightly better than OK — despite losing all four starters from a year ago.
“The guys we brought in are good players,” KU coach Charlie Weis says. “I firmly believe they’ll be playing better at the end of the year than they are playing right now.”
McDonald shares that view. His reset career has begun to take off, but the Jayhawks are still just 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big 12. And he still sees areas in which he can improve. Last week, for instance, McDonald was beat for a touchdown in Kansas’ 34-19 loss to Oklahoma.
“I kind of had a mental error and that’s not like me,” McDonald says.
Moments later, McDonald shows off one of his greatest assets: his ability to diagnose a play and tell you exactly what went wrong.
“I just wasn’t inside like I should have been,” McDonald said. “I allowed him to get inside leverage on me, and he scored a touchdown. I should have made the play.”
It doesn’t hurt that McDonald stands 6 feet 2, possessing outstanding size for a cornerback. Back in high school, that size was one of the reasons he decided football would be his future. Basketball was his love, but maybe football selected him. And so far, the decision has turned out just fine.
“In football, I’m 6-2,” McDonald says. “But in basketball, I’m only 6-2. So at my position, it definitely helps me and it just gives me some type of advantage.”