Two days after Kansas lost two senior running backs to season-ending injuries, Ben Heeney slipped into a chair inside Mrkonic Auditorium at the Anderson Family Football Complex.
Heeney, a senior linebacker, had been voted a team captain for the second straight year, along with senior receiver Nick Harwell and senior safety Cassius Sendish. So here was this threesome’s first test of leadership. In a span of 24 hours on Sunday and Monday, senior running backs Brandon Bourbon (ACL) and Taylor Cox (Achilles’) had been lost to devastating injuries. Now Heeney, Harwell and Sendish were the first Kansas players to speak publicly about a disastrous fall camp.
“They’re both like brothers to all of us,” Heeney said.
Nobody would blame the Jayhawks if they feel a little cursed. After going 9-39 over the last four seasons, the Kansas program has been in desperate need of positive vibes, not added turmoil. But as KU coach Charlie Weis announced his captains and slipped out without taking questions, Heeney stepped up and offered a confident tone.
The Jayhawks will push onward with true freshman Corey Avery and junior college transfer De’Andre Mann at running back, Heeney said, and the three KU captains think Avery and Mann will be up to the task.
“It hurts the whole team,” said Heeney, who is Bourbon’s roommate, “and it hurts them even more so.
“But the two guys that we have, Corey and De’Andre, they both had amazing camps. So it (stinks) for Brandon and Taylor, it (stinks) for guys like that — hardworking guys — but De’Andre and Corey are both exceptional players. They’re going to do very good.”
Heeney even volunteered his own services at running back — should the need arise. Weis perhaps would be hesitant to thrust an All-Big 12 linebacker into the backfield rotation, but Heeney was a prolific rusher during his high school days in Hutchinson, Kan. At the very least, he could be useful in short-yardage situations.
“I’d love to play both ways,” Heeney said. “Bring the old Hutchinson running back days back. That’d be awesome. … if they need me, I’ll be on call.”
For now, Weis has indicated that true freshman Joe Dineen will switch from safety to running back to provide some depth. But one thing is clear: The Jayhawks can’t afford more injuries in the backfield as they prepare for the home opener against Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 6.
As Heeney stated Wednesday, he still believes his team possesses sufficient talent to produce a breakthrough season for Weis’ rebuilding act. The Jayhawks just have to go out and prove it.
“The most important thing is to win games,” Heeney said. “That’s been the focus of the whole summer. We all want to win games. We’re not aiming to go 3-9 or 1-11. … It’s been our mind-set to prove everybody wrong.”
For the third straight year, Kansas’ players elected a captain who has never played a snap in a KU uniform. Like Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps before him, senior receiver Harwell is a transfer who holds great promise. But Heeney said Harwell’s role as captain has a different feel than Crist’s or Heaps’.
“I think it’s different with Nick, though,” Heeney said. “He’s a guy that couldn’t play last year, but he was still one of the most vocal guys on our team, one of the biggest leaders on our team.
“I just think it’s different with Nick than it has been with the other two guys.”
Senior safety Sendish, meanwhile, is in his second year in the program after transferring in from Arizona Western in 2013.
In addition to Kansas’ three captains, Weis announced a three-person leadership committee of senior nose tackle Keon Stowers, senior left tackle Pat Lewandowski and sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart.
Corinth event set
The ninth annual KU Kickoff at Corinth Square is set for 6 p.m. Friday in Prairie Village. The event, which takes place in the shopping center at 83rd Street and Mission Road, will feature speeches from Weis and KU women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson, and a performance from the band Coversmith at 8 p.m.