LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Last season was full of contrasts for Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney.
On 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 it.
"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 game 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.
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, gaining 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 position, but this time the soon-to-be sophomore had a legitimate shot to earn playing time.