Inside LB Countdown: Ben Heeney

Kansas' Ben Heeney, the No. 9 inside linebacker in this year's draft, has one of the best combinations of athleticism and production in his position group. “I think my biggest strength is I’m always around the ball,” he said. (John Rieger/USA TODAY)

Ben Heeney said the key to his game is going “100 miles per hour on every play.”

The Kansas linebacker might not run 100 mph but he’s plenty fast. At the Scouting Combine, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds. That’s almost one-tenth of a second faster than the average of the top 10 inside linebacker prospects in this year’s draft class. Moreover, his 4.00 in the short shuttle and three-cone time of 6.68 was the fastest of any linebacker at the Combine, and his long shuttle of 11.06 was the fastest by a linebacker at the Combine in the past decade.

Heeney put that speed to use most Saturdays. A 2,000-yard rusher as a senior at Hutchinson (Kan.) High School, Heeney developed into one of the better linebackers in Big 12 Conference history. He led the Jayhawks in tackles in each of his final three seasons — earning second-team all-conference recognition as a sophomore and junior.

“I like making big plays ever since I was little,” Heeney said at the Scouting Combine. “I used to be a running back and I used to always score touchdowns. Just making plays and hearing the crowd roar and scream, it’s something that I like. Now I’m doing it on the defensive side of the ball, but it’s the same thing, same thrill.”

As a senior, he was a finalist for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year with a career-high 127 tackles. A whopping 88 of those were solo stops. That’s about 70 percent solo, a key figure for scouts who are looking for playmakers rather than pile-jumpers. He added 12 tackles for losses and forced two fumbles.

For his career, his 214 solo tackles ranked seventh among active players and his 35.5 tackles for losses rank 19th.

“I think my biggest strength is I’m always around the ball,” he said. “Everyone says I’m sideline to sideline, and I think it’s true. I’m always making plays chasing down people down the field. I just think I am a playmaker and a good football player.”

The knock on Heeney is his size. At just 6-foot 1/4 and 231 pounds, he’d break the mold of inside linebackers selected by Ted Thompson during his decade running the Packers’ drafts. Other than D.J. Smith, a sixth-round pick in 2011, the shortest linebacker (inside or outside) selected by Thompson was Carl Bradford, who checked in at 6-foot 3/4 (and 250) pounds at last year’s Combine. Only Thompson knows if there's a dividing line between short and too short and where that line falls.

Heeney has heard the knock on size and liked the comparisons to former Wisconsin star Chris Borland. Borland, at 5-foot-10 1/2, had an excellent rookie season for the 49ers before shocking the football world by retiring earlier this month.

“Chris Borland and Luke Kuechly are a couple of names I like to model myself after,” Heeney said. “Chris Borland is a kind of guy of similar size to me, so a lot of guys coming out didn’t think he was going to be able to play in the league and he’s obviously proven them wrong. I just look up to playmakers. I look up to good players. I grew up watching Ray Lewis, guys like that. Obviously, everybody watched Ray Lewis. I like to look at good players.”

Heeney isn’t without some baggage. In July 2011, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and racing on a highway, according to records from the Douglas County (Kan.) Sheriff’s Office. He was granted diversion in the case. In January 2013, he was cited for misdemeanor battery for an incident at a bar in Lawrence, Kan.

Heeney was no trouble during his final two seasons. Unless you were an opposing ball-carrier. Then Heeney was all sorts of trouble as he became just the third player in school history to lead the team in tackles three times.

“Very hard worker, good leader,” Heeney said. “I think I offer a lot to a team as far as my role on defense, special teams. I can do anything. I can play any of the linebacker positions. I can play anything on special teams. I’ll do anything they want me to do.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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