LAWRENCE — Montell Cozart is probably not the most popular freshman on the Kansas campus, and well … that’s a pretty obvious statement. One of his neighbors at the Jayhawker Towers apartments, home base for KU athletes, is a certain freshman named Andrew Wiggins, the overwhelming favorite to be the top pick in the NBA Draft next summer.
But then there is Cozart, a 6-foot-2 freshman quarterback from Bishop Miege. He is a dual-threat athlete, armed with a blend of strength and speed. He has hands that look like badminton racquets. And he can dunk a basketball with ease.
And, of course, he has also never thrown a pass or played a snap for Kansas. To be accurate, he’s never really done much of anything in front of the general public.
So for now, he is a mystery, a freshman who was elevated to backup status this week in preparation for Kansas’ football game against Oklahoma on Saturday. In a football sense, that makes him a popular guy.
“I told you right from the fall,” KU coach Charlie Weis said. “I told you I’m really high on him. And I’m really high on Montell.”
The question, of course, then becomes whether Cozart is a possible answer for a Kansas offense that has, thus far, underwhelmed during a 2-3 start. Is Weis high enough on Cozart to burn his redshirt season and heave him into the fire of Big 12 football?
The answer is a definite maybe.
“Montell is one of the few people that, as a candidate to be redshirted, that we have not come close to making a decision on yet,” Weis said on Tuesday during his weekly news conference. “People talk about pulling redshirts off; really, we haven’t put redshirts on.”
In some ways, the conversation began last Saturday, when starter Jake Heaps connected on just 13 of 26 passes for 152 yards in a 27-17 loss at TCU. Heaps, a junior transfer from BYU, was under heavy pressure all game, getting sacked four times, and a reporter asked Weis if a mobile quarterback, such as Cozart, could have made a difference.
Weis disputed the premise. But if he was looking to squash any speculation of Cozart coming off the bench and playing as a true freshman, he certainly chose an odd course of action. On Tuesday, Weis listed Cozart as a co-No. 2 on the depth chart with sophomore Michael Cummings.
“I would not put him on the depth chart if he was not a legitimate candidate to play this week,” Weis said of Cozart.
To play Cozart, though, would mean benching Heaps — at least for a while. In five games, Heaps’ overall numbers are pretty pedestrian. He has completed 52.6 percent of his passes while throwing for five touchdowns and six interceptions. But those numbers also deserve context. The Jayhawks’ rebuilt offensive line has failed to give Heaps’ much protection, and the receiving corps has been missing in action.
“He’s got a great worth ethic,” KU quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus said this week, evaluating Heaps. “He’s got great quarterback skills; he has abilities to make perfect passes. At the same time, he’s got out of whack on a few plays.”
Powlus, meanwhile, says Cozart has progressed nicely during his first months on campus. A three-star prospect from Bishop Miege, Cozart is often pigeon-holed as a running quarterback — a title he doesn’t care for.
“I consider myself a dual-type guy,” Cozart said in August. “Most definitely pass first.”
But even if Cozart is ready to play, it’s hardy the only factor to consider. Is it worth burning a year of eligibility for half a season, especially when KU appears to have a prayer’s chance at a bowl bid?
In 2006, then-Kansas coach Mark Mangino pulled the redshirt off freshman quarterback Todd Reesing in a late October home game against Colorado. Reesing sparked a dramatic comeback victory, and he guided KU to the Orange Bowl the following season. But it’s also worth remembering that Reesing hardly played after that Colorado victory — and some KU fans would surely have enjoyed an extra season of Reesing in 2010.
In Weis’ view, it only makes sense to burn a year of eligibility if a kid can contribute for at least half the season. That puts the Cozart question on the clock. This Saturday will be Kansas’ sixth game, the midpoint of the season. For now, it appears that Weis hasn’t made up his mind. But he’s certainly open to the idea.
“Sometimes,” Weis said, “it makes them that much more prepared to play the next season.”