In the spring of 2012, Clint Bowen was just beginning his second stint as a defensive assistant coach at Kansas, yet he already could sense the Jayhawks had a player to build their defense around.
Linebacker Ben Heeney hadn’t been a major contributor during his true freshman season the year before but Bowen knew, almost immediately, Heeney was going to become a major contributor as a sophomore. As the Jayhawks defensive coordinator and linebackers coach watched Heeney separate himself from his teammates during spring drills, he saw the future of KU's defense.
“He ran harder, he ran faster, he hit harder,” Bowen said. “He has an intensity level that is hard for some guys to step up to. It’s just his makeup, he’s an intense guy that plays hard. Even though he hadn’t played linebacker in games yet, early in spring ball it was like, ‘Wow, that guy is moving to the ball with bad intentions.’”
It was a far cry from the Ben Heeney who stepped on campus as a true freshman.
“I was really nervous when I got here,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the best guy right away. Coming to college was definitely a reality check. Getting comfortable and knowing I could play with these guys made me comfortable.”
The comfort turned into confidence, and the confidence combined with determination to catch the eye of Bowen and the rest of the defensive coaching staff that spring. Two years later Heeney enters spring football preparing to continue his role as the centerpiece of KU’s defense for the third straight season. He recorded 199 tackles in 22 games during his sophomore and junior seasons, earning All-Big 12 second-team honors both seasons.
“His role will be the center of everything on our defense and take control of the situation and make plays,” Bowen said. “He’s our most accomplished guy on the defensive side of the ball as far as production and honors and he’s probably the main leader. When things aren’t going good he’s not afraid to speak up. When you talk leader by example he’s the one you can point to, your best player is the guy who is running the hardest.”
Coming off a season which saw Heeney finish fourth in the Big 12 at 8.7 tackles per game and fifth with 1.15 tackles for loss per game, the senior has clear goals as KU’s spring practices begin today.
“I’m trying to be more consistent in everything I do, be a guy everyone can depend on and be the best leader I can be,” Heeney said. “And I want to focus on trying to force fumbles more. I haven’t really forced many fumbles since I’ve been here, it’s something I want to focus on this spring and continue into next year.”
With individual success already in hand, Heeney hopes his final season in Lawrence, Kan., is full of team success culminating in a NFL dream come true.
“As coaches we hunt for perfection, there’s always things you can improve on,” Bowen said. “He knows fundamentally there are always things he can fix. Who can say 100 tackles doesn’t turn into 115 if you do those little things better? He wants to be the best he can be for our team and for himself.”
Heeney said he has always dreamed of playing in the NFL, and Bowen believes his NFL dream can become a reality. Linebacker Mike Rivera and cornerback Aqib Talib, former Jayhawks who were teammates on the New England Patriots last season, are two players who immediately come to mind when Bowen thinks of former players he has coached who share traits with his current defensive standout.
“His awareness and intensity are like Aqib, his toughness and competitiveness like Rivera,” Bowen said. “If [Heeney] stays healthy he’s on that path [to play in the NFL], he’s that type of guy.”