Ben Heeney stood on a large padded box inside the University of Kansas weight room, his hands tucked close to his chest in an athletic position.
Before the end of the weekend, Heeney, a former Kansas football standout, will likely hear his named called in the late rounds of the NFL Draft. But in this moment earlier this month, Heeney gathered himself for another round of box jumps during a morning workout with Andrea Hudy, KU’s lead strength and conditioning coordinator for the men’s basketball program.
Balancing on one foot, Heeney stepped down off a short box with his left foot, then exploded into the air off two feet, landing on a taller black box, maybe four feet off the ground. A few steps away, former Chiefs defensive back Donald Washington watched his workout partner finish the exercise.
“Good,” Hudy said. “Better.”
This is what it looks like when a former All-Big 12 linebacker preps for the biggest opportunity of his life, a chance to be selected in the NFL Draft and fulfill a dream of playing professional football. For Heeney, who could be drafted somewhere between the fourth and seventh rounds, the heavy lifting of his draft prep is over. In the past four months, he has trained at the EXOS performance center in Pensacola, Fla. He made an impression at the NFL Combine with a solid showcase of speed and agility. He then returned to Lawrence, spending his mornings running through plyometric workouts with Hudy, trying to increase his range of motion and mobility.
In most ways, Heeney has checked all the boxes as an NFL prospect. He was a star in college. His combine numbers were impressive. There are zero concerns about his worth ethic or toughness. And yet, Heeney has spent the last couple months hearing all about his limitations and deficiencies.
Heeney (6-foot, 231 pounds) knows people question his size and strength. He knows there are preconceived notions about how athletic he can really be. He even saw the stat on his NFL.com Draft profile page, which said Heeney led the nation in missed tackles last year.
“It’s a bull… stat,” Heeney says. “I don’t care about that stat. It’s not like freaking Joe Schmoe is going through every single college football player and counting all their missed tackles. It’s an inaccurate stat.”
Part of this, of course, comes with the territory of the modern Draft Industrial Complex, where every detail is scrutinized. Heeney understands this. What’s more, he actually enjoys it. When he was growing up in Hutchinson, he dreamed about one day playing in the NFL. Now he’s the one going through all the pre-draft processes. He believes his dream is close.
“I’m not worried about anything, man,” Heeney says. “I’ve done what I’ve done, my whole career. I’m planning on getting drafted. But even if I don’t get drafted, I don’t even care.
“Because wherever I’m going, I’ll tryout for the team, and I’ll make the team. I’m not worried about that.”
On paper, Heeney looks the part. During his senior season at Kansas, he finished off his career with 127 tackles in 12 games. He earned All-Big 12 honors for the third straight year. He built his reputation on an all-out style, flying from sideline to sideline. But in the months after the season, Heeney felt that people still overlooked his athleticism. In football parlance, he was a “try-hard” guy, a throwback who supposedly made plays with effort and grit.
“A white linebacker, you’re considered not athletic,” Heeney says. “You’re considered a gym rat, a film rat, a student of the game. Which I would say I am. I’m in the film room. I like watching film. I like studying film. But my athleticism has always been diminished.”
To knock down that myth, Heeney headed to EXOS to prepare for the NFL Combine, where he could show he was more than will and determination. Surrounded by fellow draft prospects, Heeney was up early in the morning and cycling through workouts with other players in his position group. When he landed in Indianpolis for the combine in March, he felt ready.
“I knew I was going to kill it,” he says.
Heeney clocked a 4.59-second 40-yard dash, the fifth-best time among all linebackers. He also recorded the fastest times in the 20-yard short shuttle, 60-yard shuttle and three-cone drill. (His time in the three-cone drill was the best by a linebacker since 2006.)
“I was never surprised,” he says.
In the weeks after the Combine, Heeney says, he began hearing from a steady stream of NFL organizations. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have shown great interest. And, of course, Heeney has a soft spot for the Chiefs, with his parents now living in the Kansas City area.
On her first day working with Heeney, Hudy could tell that his right foot was never quite facing forward during exercises. Heeney soon realized that a broken ankle suffered during high school had left him with some issues that had never been detected.
“Nobody had ever noticed that before,” Heeney says.
Sitting inside the KU weight room, Heeney recites this story, one small moment from months of workouts and waiting. Soon enough, he hopes, he’ll hear his name called. Finally, the draft prep will be over.
“Man,” he says, “it’s going to be a dream come true.”
KU draft outlook
Ben Heeney, LB
6-0, 231, Hutchinson
Analysis: Heeney, an All-Big 12 linebacker from Hutchinson, projects as a fifth- or sixth-round pick. He draws high marks for his athleticism — he set the combine on fire with a 4.59-second 40-yard dash and great performance in the 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drill.
Projection: Fifth or sixth round
JaCorey Shepherd, CB
5-11, 199, Mesquite, Texas
Analysis: A former receiver, Shepherd changed positions as a sophomore and grew into an All-Big 12 cornerback over the next three seasons. He was invited to the combine and has solid college numbers from the last two seasons, finishing with 32 passes defended and five interceptions.
Projection: Fifth-round pick
Dexter McDonald, CB
6-1, 200, Kansas City, Mo.
Analysis: He opened eyes with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash time at the Jayhawks’ pro day. He wasn’t invited to the combine.
Projection: Seventh round or free agent
Trevor Pardula, P
6-5, 212, San Jose, Calif.
Analysis: After two strong seasons, the former junior-college transfer will likely have an opportunity to impress a team as a free agent. Armed with a strong leg, Pardula had at least one punt of 54 yards or more in 18 of 24 college games.
Projection: Free-agent signing
Nigel King, WR
6-3, 210, Raleigh, N.C.
Analysis: A former graduate transfer, King spent one season at Kansas and left with a year of eligibility remaining. King ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash at the KU pro day. He was a big-play threat at Kansas.
Projection: Free-agent signing