LAWRENCE — Last season was filled with unfamiliarity for Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney.
On the one hand, he earned significant playing time on defense for the first time since his junior year at Hutchinson (Kan.) High School. On the other, he experienced losing.
A lot of losing.
"I've won three games since I've been at KU, and I won 45 or so at Hutch," said Heeney, now a junior and one of the leaders of the Jayhawks' defense. "The culture at Hutch was to win state. That was the only thing that anyone was focused on. If we didn't win state it was an unsuccessful year."
Heeney was part of three state champion teams in high school, but has yet to win a Big 12 game in Lawrence. The Jayhawks, who open the season Saturday night against South Dakota, haven't won a conference came since November 2010 — against Colorado, now a member of the Pac-12.
While the Jayhawks trudged to a 1-11 finish in Charlie Weis' first season as coach, Heeney was one of the rare bright spots. He made 112 tackles and led the team with 12 tackles for loss, and was voted second-team All-Big 12 by The Associated Press for his efforts.
Still, it took a while for Heeney to feel like he had a role on the Jayhawks.
At Hutchinson, Heeney was an all-state running back, scampering for more than 2,000 yards his senior year. On defense, he played strong safety. So when he arrived at Kansas as a freshman, Heeney thought he would get a healthy dose of playing time at one of those positions.
It didn't take long for reality to set in.
"My freshman year, I felt like I was not really being wasted," he said, "but in a sense, kind of. Coming in they told me the only way I wasn't going to redshirt was if I was going to get significant defensive snaps, which I got zero my freshman year."
All of that happened under Turner Gill, who had turned Heeney into a linebacker before he was fired after a miserable 2-10 season. Weis was hired in December 2011 and kept Heeney at the same spot, but this time the soon-to-be sophomore had a legitimate shot to earn playing time.
Not only did Heeney win a job, he seized the opportunity — even though he now admits that he was mostly playing by instinct as he grew acclimated to life in the Big 12.
Perhaps realizing his raw potential, Kansas linebacker coach Clint Bowen came up with three areas where Heeney needed to improve this season: his foundation for enhanced leverage, eliminating false steps in order to play faster, and the confidence to make better reads.
"Where he is, I always tell him, if you play like you did last year and you made whatever it was, 90 tackles, you probably should have made 120," Bowen explained. "This year if he makes 120, he probably should have made 150, because there's always those missed ones out there."
Heeney doesn't focus on the number of tackles he makes, though. After all, somebody has to make them, and often if it comes down to the linebacker it's because someone up front didn't do his job.
In truth, the number that gnaws at Heeney is three: Kansas' win total his first two seasons.
Heeney, who's grown a gnarly beard this season, dismissed the notion that he's become the leader of the defense, insisting that it takes all 11 players to make a stand. But despite having just one year of real playing time under his belt, he was voted a captain by his peers.
"There's no doubt that he'll be one of the main factors in not only performance but in leadership," Weis said. "He looks like a caveman, but he's ready to go. I might institute a cut your beard policy before too long."