There’s sometimes a tendency for postseason honors to be swallowed up by the winners. The old cliché is that MVP awards often go to the best player on the best team.
So what happens when the Big 12 leader in sacks and tackles for loss — defensive end Dorance Armstrong — plays for 2-9 Kansas? Will he be dismissed as a legitimate candidate for the conference’s defensive player of the year?
His coach hopes that’s not the case.
“I don’t know how you leave him out of that talk,” KU coach David Beaty said. “I mean, he’s easily one of the best players in this conference — if not the best player — on the defensive side.”
The raw stats support Beaty’s case.
Armstrong is first in the Big 12 in tackles for loss (17) and sacks (10) while ranking in the top 11 nationally in both categories. In addition, Armstrong’s three forced fumbles are tied for the league lead, while his 50 tackles are the fourth-most by a defensive lineman.
“You talk about a guy that has each and every week showed up and played in Big 12 football games … he’s been a guy that has made plays all year,” KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen said. “Absolutely I think he should be in the consideration, if not the front-runner.”
It’s even more impressive considering Armstrong believed he might not get to play a few months ago. During the first week of practice, he partially tore the ACL in his right knee before receiving good news after an MRI. Doctors told him he could return this year, and he did after healing the injury thanks to specific work with trainer Murphy Grant and strength coach Je’Ney Jackson.
“I was scared when I first got back on the field playing with it,” Armstrong said. “Now I’m really surprised at the season I’m having.”
Armstrong has been able to follow his progress along stat leader boards thanks to social media. An uncle in Houston likes to tag him on Twitter, sharing screenshots of his name at the top of the Big 12 sacks list. Armstrong’s mother, Carol Watson, also likes to post about his progress on Facebook.
“I like being able to make my family proud,” Armstrong said. “It just feels good to have this accomplishment so far.”
Bowen says not only is Armstrong a gifted pass-rusher, but he also has the versatility to help in other ways. He’s a three-down player, which means he holds up well against the run and doesn’t have to be subbed out in obvious rushing situations.
In the last few weeks, he’s done even more. Armstrong was folded into pass coverage on some plays Saturday against Texas. Bowen also has gotten back to moving him around the line of scrimmage as a stand-up rusher, making it tougher for offenses to prepare for where he’s going to be.
“He’s what everyone wants,” Bowen said. “He’s playing at a high level.”
Will that be enough to get a Big 12 defensive player of the year nod? Something that could help his argument would be a strong finale against Kansas State, which has a defensive standout of its own.
K-State senior Jordan Willis is second behind Armstrong in both sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (13 1/2 ) while playing one fewer game. Armstrong has noticed that Willis’ name has been next to his on those stats for most of the season.
“This is the last game (for me),” Armstrong said, “so we’re going to see who comes out on top.”
Though KU has only had one Big 12 defensive player of the year (linebacker Nick Reid in 2005), Beaty believes Armstrong has a strong chance based on how Saturday goes.
“I know this: I’ve seen some really, really good football players on great teams, and I’ve also seen some really good ones on some teams that weren’t so good,” Beaty said. “It comes down to production. We're still playing against the same guys they're playing against.”