Playing in a conference known for its offensive firepower, Kansas’ defense has been known for giving up plenty of points. The Jayhawks haven’t cracked the top 100 FBS teams in opponent points allowed per game since 2013, when Kansas was 94th giving up 31.8 points per game.
So it hasn’t been good as a whole, which is what matters and how teams are judged. No one would argue otherwise.
But within those flawed and struggling defenses has been playing-on-Sundays-level* talent putting up impressive numbers. Overlooked by the majority of fans outside of the state of Kansas, these players were the bright spots in an otherwise struggling unit, earning all-conference honors and continuing their careers into the NFL.
The majority of this series will be focused on current players who have either already taken over as all-conference players and draft hopefuls or could be next in line in the coming years. But first, a look at some of the top KU defensive players of the past eight seasons (in no particular order).
This time frame is important, because it takes place after the Mark Mangino era (when things really went downhill and the defense got worse) and thus excludes guys like Chris Harris and Darrell Stuckey.
The story of the Jayhawks’ 2016 season was Dorance Armstrong, at least until that win over Texas. And he can even be credited in that game with 11 tackles (three for loss), two sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
He was the reason to watch. If I were Kansas’ head coach, my top post-game quote would be “Dorance was great again today,” in my best Belichick voice.
2016 Dorance Armstrong was as dominant a defensive performer as Kansas has seen in a while. Armstrong recorded 56 tackles, 20 for loss (1st in Big 12, 7th in NCAA); 10 sacks (2nd in Big 12); and three forced fumbles (1st in Big 12). Those numbers earned Armstrong a unanimous spot on the All-Big 12 First Team and Kansas’ first-ever Preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, not to mention a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
While 2016 was Armstrong’s breakout year before offensive coordinators actively game planned to avoid him, he still finished a career good for the 17th most tackles for loss (34) in the Big 12 since 2005 (that’s the year Sports-Reference uses, so it’s what I’ll go with for this article) and 14th most forced fumbles (6) in the conference in the same span.
For three seasons, Ben Heeney tackled everything in sight—both opposing players and awards, as evident by this impressive list—and earned the nickname Captain Heeney. Heeney accumulated 334 tackles over his four-year career, though he only recorded eight as a freshman, which is the ninth most tackles in the conference since 2005. He also has the fifth most solo tackles, and 13th most tackles for loss in the Big 12 in that span. Captain Heeney also capped his career with 127 total tackles (3rd in Big 12), 92 solo tackles (1st in Big 12 and 3rd in NCAA), and 13 tackles for loss (7th in Big 12).
While Heeney and Armstrong made their money with tackles, Shepherd made the transition from wide receiver (he racked up 252 yards on 15 catches and three touchdowns as a freshman) to a sixth-round draft pick by making plays in the secondary and on special teams. Shepherd was one of the top pass defenders in the country in 2014, his 14 deflections good for second in the Big 12 and seventh in the country. Meanwhile, he racked up more than 1,200 kickoff return yards in two years, including leading the Big 12 with 773 yards as a senior.
Another convert from wide receiver, McDougald first tallied more than 550 yards receiving in his first two years before immediately contributing on defense. As a junior and senior, he recorded more than 90 tackles in each season with two (one for a touchdown) and three interceptions respectively. McDougald was especially good at gaining yards after the interception, using those wide receiver instincts to earn 86 interception return yards in 2011 and 63 yards in 2012.
*Four of the five KU players drafted during this span come from the defensive side of the ball. The only drafted defensive player not on this list is Dexter McDonald, who was a really good pass defender but didn’t accumulate enough other stats to warrant inclusion.