Dorance Armstrong’s cleat stuck in the grass, and after getting pushed awkwardly by an offensive lineman, he felt a tweak in his right knee.
The Kansas defensive end crumpled to the ground during one of KU’s first practices in August, his mind racing as teammates gathered around him.
“I was scared,” Armstrong said.
He wasn’t the only one.
KU coach David Beaty caught himself holding his breath after seeing the play from start to finish. Quarterback Montell Cozart still remembers the murmurs around him. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
When Armstrong was brought to his feet, he couldn’t put any weight on his right leg. Though it went unspoken, those around him feared the worst.
This seemed like a torn ACL.
“We thought we lost him,” KU defensive tackle Daniel Wise said.
It makes Armstrong’s production this season all the more remarkable as KU prepares to face No. 14 West Virginia on Saturday.
Just three months after the incident, Armstrong shares the Big 12 sack lead and also ranks top 10 nationally while averaging a sack a game.
He’s done all this, Beaty says, after recovering from a partially torn ACL on that August day.
“Anybody else it would have been ... I think everything might have been (completely) torn, but he is so strong,” Beaty said. “The work that he did kept him healthy.”
Though it sounds a bit Superman-like, Beaty says Armstrong was able to heal his own injury after going through specific work with trainer Murphy Grant and strength coach Je’Ney Jackson. Following an MRI, Armstrong’s recovery included exercises like leg curls and leg lifts that helped fortify the area around the knee.
In a few days, he walked with a limp. A couple weeks after that, he was jogging again.
Armstrong made it back for KU’s Week 1 game against Rhode Island, but he didn’t feel like he was fully healthy.
“I didn’t know how to play on it,” Armstrong said. “I was kind of hesitant. The first few games, I didn’t make any noise when I played. I was just out there playing.”
That changed in Game 3 against Memphis, as Armstrong led KU with two sacks. He had two sacks the week after that against Texas Tech and has gotten at least one each of the last six weeks.
“His year is phenomenal, and it’s still getting better,” Wise said. “He has four more games left. He’s still ready to shock a lot of people.”
His progress also has helped KU’s defense as a whole, as his reputation is leading to more double-teams and running backs chip-blocking him. That attention has allowed teammates more opportunities to make plays.
“I know I wouldn’t want to be the quarterback dropping back, him coming off to my blind side,” Cozart said. “He’s a great player.”
Armstrong says he’s now pain free with his knee, and Beaty reiterates that because of the strengthening process, the sophomore shouldn’t need offseason surgery.
There’s still more to accomplish in 2016. Armstrong glances every day at a leaderboard posted in the defensive lineman meeting room that shows KU’s sack leaders for a single game (5, Brandon Perkins), season (Ron Warner, 14.5) and career (Algie Atkinson, 24).
Armstrong, a sophomore with eight sacks this season and 11.5 in his career, says the single-season number stands out most.
“I definitely want to beat it,” Armstrong said. “If I don’t beat it this year, I’ll beat it before I leave. That’s my goal.”
Jesse Newell: @jessenewell
Kansas at No. 14 West Virginia
- When: 6 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va.
- Records: KU 1-7, 0-5 Big 12; WVU 6-1, 3-1
- Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 97.5-FM
- TV: ESPN2
Three things about West Virginia
1. Last week’s 37-20 loss at Oklahoma State broke a string of seven straight games where West Virginia had held a Big 12 opponent to 25 points or fewer.
2. The Mountaineers have won 11 of their last 13 games.
3. West Virginia has rushed for at least 150 yards in 18 of its last 21 games and is averaging 207 rushing yards this season.
KU quarterback Montell Cozart vs. West Virginia’s defensive looks: Cozart has earned the starting job based on his better understanding of KU’s offense, though that didn’t result in much production during Oklahoma’s 56-3 victory last week. He’ll have to be better this week not only reading the defense but also with execution, as he missed an open receiver on a deep ball early against Oklahoma and seemed to let that disappointment affect his play after that. Like the rest of his teammates, Cozart will need to have better road resilience if KU wants to have a chance at the upset.
Jesse Newell’s pick: West Virginia, 41-10
Though the 34 1/2-point spread seems high, that number is partly factoring in just how much worse the Jayhawks have played on the road compared to home. One would figure that the Jayhawks show a more competitive game at least once on the road this season, but the more it doesn’t happen, the harder it is to believe that a magic switch will get flipped. A lot will come down to KU’s offense once again, as the team will be going up against a West Virginia defense that is widely considered as a top-two unit in the Big 12. The Jayhawks still lead the nation with 27 turnovers, and one would figure that ball security will play a huge role in determining whether KU can remain competitive Saturday.