Kansas has been the Big 12 doormat for nearly a decade, but the emergence of junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong gives the Jayhawks hope that changes are coming.
Despite playing for a defense that ranked ninth in the Big 12 and 109th in the country last season, Armstrong was named the conference’s preseason defensive player of the year.
It’s easy to see why: Armstrong led the Big 12 with 20 tackles for loss last season and finished second with 10 sacks behind Kansas State’s Jordan Willis. He’s an inspiration to his teammates who are trying to rise to his level.
“To see that respect given to a guy on a team that was 2-10 is pretty remarkable,” said Kansas junior linebacker Joe Dineen. “Dorance works so hard and everything he’s gotten is because of that. Obviously he’s really, really talented. But talent will only get you so far and he’s really raised the level of us as a team and a defense to keep working hard and trying to get to where he’s at.”
Armstrong combines strength and speed to be one of the most feared pass rushers in the country. At 6-4 and 255 pounds, he has the power to blow through blockers and the quickness to maneuver around them.
But one of his best qualities is his attitude. He’s never satisfied, his teammates say. He wants to get better every down of every game and will use his preseason accolades as motivation.
“It’s an honor to win that award,” Armstrong said. “I was very shocked when I got that call. But I’m going to use that as motivation and to stay humble to go get that award and make my folks and the fans proud.”
Despite Kansas’ lack of success, coach David Beaty somehow plucked Armstrong out of Galena Park North Shore High School in the Houston metropolitan area. After Kansas hired him in December 2014, one of Beaty’s early recruiting priorities was to land Armstrong.
Since Armstrong weighed 215 pounds as a high school senior, some college coaches wanted to move him to outside linebacker. Former Kansas defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux, now an assistant at Oklahoma, was a key figure in convincing Armstrong to play defensive end for the Jayhawks.
Deep into North Shore’s basketball season, Armstrong didn’t want to make many football recruiting visits. He ended up taking just one and liked what he saw at Kansas.
“Kansas was the only place I took a visit,” Armstrong said. “I played basketball my senior year of high school and games were on Fridays, and I didn’t want to miss them to go on visits. I had to take one. I liked the coaches, players and facilities. It was my first time ever in Kansas and I met a lot of people who were so nice. I felt like I was at home.”
Armstrong knew he had to bulk up to play defensive end in the Big 12, and hit the weight room hard.
“The coaches pushed me to gain weight,” Armstrong said. “I came in at 215, and no one can play the game at that weight. I weigh 255 now. It’s not really hard. I always eat, I’m not really a party guy. I just go back to the facilities and get the work in with the guys.”
Since the Jayhawks needed immediate help, Armstrong played as a true freshman in 2015 and started the last five games. He finished the season with 23 tackles including five for loss and 3½ sacks.
Armstrong got off to a slow start in preseason camp last summer after injuring his ACL. But he was ready for the season opener against Rhode Island and recorded his first two sacks in the third game against Memphis.
It started a streak in which Armstrong collected at least one sack in six straight games, including two against Texas Tech. Though the Jayhawks didn’t win any of those games, Armstrong developed into a force on defense.
“He has that drive and desire to not want to get blocked,” said Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise. “He has that mindset that if I do get blocked I’m not going to stay blocked. You have to be on top of your game if you want to block him. He’s constantly trying to get better at his craft. He helps his teammates out and that’s what’s gained him so much respect and so many accolades.”
Armstrong continued to play at an exceptional level and it finally paid off with the Jayhawks’ only Big 12 win when they upset Texas, 24-21, in overtime on Nov. 19. Armstrong was named Big 12 defensive player of the week after collecting a career-high 11 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
“It was huge for our coaches, our team, and the university itself,” Armstrong said. “But that was last year and we’re going into this year with the same mindset we had in that game.”
Beaty expects Armstrong to have a big junior year and live up to his preseason honors.
“Dorance works hard every day and has a never quit mentality, and that's really starting to pay off for him, and it's fun to watch,” Beaty said. “I’m just really proud of his development, and is a great example of those young guys who started with us two years ago. But the best thing I think about Dorance is that award doesn't mean much to him. He knows that's just written and that the real award is given at the end of the year. He cares a lot more about his teammates and about winning.”