LAWRENCE — The fortunes of Kansas football shifted over a plate of spaghetti and high school recruit Dorance Armstrong rising to his feet to answer the door.
In front of Armstrong’s house were two Missouri coaches: Barry Odom and Craig Kuligowski. Inside the house, though, Armstrong’s mother, Carol Watson, already had made dinner for KU coaches Calvin Thibodeaux and Clint Bowen.
Armstrong had forgotten about the double-booking, apologizing for the interruption. Mizzou’s coaches agreed to wait outside until KU’s coaches were finished.
“Calvin and I just kind of looked at each other,” Bowen says now with a smile, “and knew that we were going to extend this thing a long time.”
Bowen couldn’t have known it at the time, but one of KU’s biggest recruiting wins — and most important moments of the David Beaty era — was taking place at that Houston dinner table.
For the Jayhawks’ coaching staff, it was a nearly impossible situation. Beaty had just been hired in the previous weeks, leaving the staff scrambling to complete a recruiting class. It led KU’s coaches to high school tape of the lightly recruited Armstrong, who was playing at 212 pounds — a size that wasn’t close to Big 12 level for defensive ends.
As he watched Armstrong’s film, though, Bowen couldn’t get one thought out of his head, a lesson learned from former coach Glen Mason more than 20 years earlier: KU football sometimes can’t take the perfect player, but instead must take an imperfect one and develop him.
“It’s easy to go and recognize the guys who physically fit the part or have some ungodly test number type deals — the freak athletes,” Bowen said. “You’ve got to look beyond.”
And Armstrong had all the signs of a late bloomer.
He was small, yes, but that was mostly because he was playing basketball in the winter. He had broad shoulders and long arms — looking like he was going to fill out — while still maintaining quickness and flexibility needed to succeed at the top level of college football.
It didn’t hurt that Bowen had seen players like this succeed before. James Holt was once a 190-pound safety who turned into an all-Big 12 linebacker who was drafted in the NFL. Tanner Hawkinson also transitioned from tight end to offensive tackle before spending three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles.
“Some guys walk in the door, and they have NFL talent,” Bowen said. “Those guys (Holt and Hawkinson) had to work to get that.”
Now, it was Bowen’s job to convince Armstrong he could become the next success story. And also do so while leaving KU’s biggest rival on the front steps.
So the filibuster began. Bowen and Thibodeaux kept talking ... and talking ... and talking.
“It was a joke with Coach Bowen. ‘We’re just going to make them sit outside a little bit longer,’” Armstrong said. “That’s what we did.”
Finally — after Watson yawned a few times — Bowen and Thibodeaux excused themselves to leave. They passed the Missouri coaches on the way out, who were left to make their pitch to a fatigued family.
A few weeks later, Armstrong committed to KU after getting offered on a campus visit, doing so before he was scheduled to see Missouri’s campus.
“They came more to me with facts about the program, about the school, period,” Armstrong said. “That’s something I wasn’t getting from a lot of coaches.”
Armstrong has done much of the rest. He’s transformed his body to 250 pounds, adding weight and maintaining it with help from strength coaches and nutritionists. He gained national attention with 10 sacks last season, and a few months ago, he was chosen Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year — the first time a Jayhawk has taken that honor.
The future looks promising as well. In the last month, CBS Sports’ Matt Miller projected Armstrong as the 25th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, meaning the junior likely will have a decision to make if he continues his production this season.
He also could be one of KU’s most important players when it comes to building a foundation under Beaty. The coach reports that Armstrong’s been a leader in the offseason — especially in morning workouts — and his presence could set a blueprint for successful players in the program.
“One of the big things for guys like us in the situation we were in is a little bit of luck,” Beaty said. “A little bit of luck got in here, and a lot of development.”
It all might not have happened without Bowen playing some defense over a plate of pasta.
“There was a guy that’s looking into the future about me and telling me a lot of good things,” Armstrong said. “That sounded good.
“I just had to make them happen.”