KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Former Kansas Jayhawks linebacker Ben Heeney has grown up fast since the Oakland Raiders selected him in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
The 23-year-old Heeney got engaged to his college sweetheart, Taylor Alderson, in July, and then the couple welcomed their son, Tatum, in late August.
“It’s been a whirlwind for me,” Heeney said in a telephone interview. “A lot of moving parts in a short period of time, but everything is good.”
Both life-changing events, for sure, but the birth of his son influenced Heeney’s desire to slow down away from the playing field.
“I’m providing for another human being’s life, so it’s just like you have to step up to the plate,” the new father said. “You’re providing for a life, so your entire mindset changes.”
But while Heeney’s changed his approach to priorities while not in a football uniform, the Raiders still have a player who knows one speed on the field – fast.
“He’s been a great addition to our team,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said in a conference call with Chiefs beat writers. “He’s been playing more in some of our subpackages. He’s been a great contributor on special teams. He’s got great speed and great anticipation and really flies around.”
The high energy displayed throughout Heeney’s playing career as a three-year starter at Kansas, where he totaled 335 tackles, 4 ½ sacks and four interceptions, has carried over to the Raiders.
Despite his collegiate production, Oakland has eased the rookie into action and he has played mostly on special teams, where he ranks third on the team with 183 snaps.
“I knew I was going to play a lot of special teams, which I have done this whole year,” Heeney said. “I’ve been a core special teams guy on all the units, but I just knew I was going to do whatever role the team needed me to fulfill.”
Heeney’s development hasn’t gone unnoticed by a member of Sunday’s opponent, Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson.
“I think he’s doing well,” Johnson said. “It’s all a process. You’d rather have success later than earlier; that’s how my career has gone. As long as he gets better each year, game-by-game, he’ll be fine. He’s a heck of an athlete and a very smart guy.”
Johnson knows Heeney well as the duo share the same agent, and the players developed a relationship during the offseason leading to the NFL Draft.
The two often shared text messages and Johnson used the time to offer Heeney advice on how to develop as an NFL player, a mentorship session the three-time Pro Bowl selection found easy.
“He seemed real eager to learn, he was a guy that was an open book,” Johnson said. “You could tell he had great talent, but at the same time he always asked questions – on the field questions and off the field questions.”
Armed with Johnson’s offseason mentorship and playing experience as the regular season progressed, Heeney announced he was ready for a larger role in Week 11 against the Detroit Lions.
The native of Hutchinson, Kan., recorded a season-high 38 snaps on defense as a key member of the Raiders’ nickel package, making the most of that opportunity with a career-high nine tackles and a sack.
And because of the subpackage Heeney plays in, he could be in line to see plenty of action Sunday against the Chiefs, a team that utilizes numerous looks in the passing game.
“I should be getting a lot more snaps this week,” Heeney said. “I just have to take advantage of every opportunity I’m given, so whatever I can give to help the team is what I’m all about.”
There is, of course, another dynamic at play for Heeney when he looks across the field at Sunday’s opponent.
“Being a Kansas kid, born and raised, you’re going to cheer for the Royals and Chiefs,” Heeney said. “It’s going to be weird. Guys like Derrick Johnson, I looked up to him while I was in college.”
Heeney said he is excited for the opportunity to play against the team he grew up rooting for, but he will cast aside childhood allegiances as a member of the Raiders.
He understands it may be hard for friends in the Midwest to root for his team, but they’ll have an opportunity to watch him play the only way he knows how.
“Most of my friends, they’re Chiefs fans, so they’ll probably be watching,” Heeney said. “I don’t know how much anyone from home has been keeping up with me other than my really close friends.
“It will be good just to have a bunch of friendly eyes watching. I mean, a lot of people probably won’t be cheering for the Raiders, but they’ll at least be cheering for me.”