LAWRENCE — One week of practice, and Montell Cozart had proved he could play. That was all it took, really. One week, and Cozart was the starting quarterback.
It was the fall of 2011, and Cozart was a junior at Bishop Miege. He hadn’t played football as a freshman, and he had played mostly defense as a sophomore, but when Cozart showed up for the Stags’ preseason camp, he beat out a senior named Timmy Mahoney, a player many on the Miege staff had deemed capable of the role.
The quarterback competition was expected to last through the preseason. But after one week, then-Miege coach Tim Grunhard had seen enough.
“(Montell) just kept on making plays,” said Bishop Miege coach Jon Holmes, who was an assistant that season. “I remember Coach Grunhard told me, a week into practice, ‘This guy is our starter for sure.’”
If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s happening again. Cozart, a freshman quarterback at Kansas, is engaged in another competition with an older teammate, junior quarterback Jake Heaps. And once again, Cozart has begun to make believers out of a coaching staff, one looking for help on a struggling offense.
When Kansas (2-5, 0-4 Big 12) travels to Texas on Saturday, Heaps and Cozart will split the snaps for the second straight week. It might be a 50-50 proposition — unless one quarterback steps up — and Cozart will get another chance to prove he’s the future.
“If one of them got a hot hand in the game, why would you take them out?” KU coach Charlie Weis said this week. “You just wouldn’t. We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.”
But the fact that Cozart is even here, battling for playing time as a freshman, is eye-opening. Four years ago, Cozart thought his future was on the basketball floor. He didn’t even play football as a freshman, instead opting to rest up for basketball after suffering a torn meniscus in his knee.
But one day at Miege, physical education teacher David Eller saw Cozart bouncing around his gym class, chucking a football with incredible ease. Intrigued by the athletic freshman with the big arm, Eller went to look for Holmes.
“There’s this kid in my P.E. class, Montell Cozart,” Eller told Holmes. “He’s gonna be our next good quarterback to come through here.”
Four years later, Holmes still jokes about that day. Cozart had played quarterback growing up across the state line in Kansas City, so he wasn’t a complete novice. But when he came out for football the next year, his quarterback skills still needed a little polish.
Enter Miege assistant Justin Hoover, who doubles as a quarterback instructor during the offseason. The summer before his junior year, Hoover and Cozart went to work. Hoover adjusted his grip. They worked on his core strength. And even though Cozart could probably clock a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, Hoover had a specific goal in mind: He didn’t want Cozart to be an athlete that played quarterback. He wanted him to be a polished pocket-passer.
“He had a quick release and a real easy release,” Hoover said. “A lot of guys look real mechanical when the ball comes out. And it wasn’t that way with Montell.”
Cozart hasn’t been allowed to speak to reporters since the season began — Weis has a policy against true freshmen talking to the media — but it appears that Cozart’s time at Miege laid the foundation for early success at KU, where he followed Grunhard, now the Jayhawks’ offensive line coach.
One example: When Cozart was in high school, Hoover made him identify the middle linebacker on each play, setting up the protection calls for the offensive line. It’s similar to the system Weis runs at KU.
“Montell has been competing ever since (fall) camp,” KU senior running back James Sims said this week. “It was just a matter of him getting the plays down. We knew when he first came in here, he had the potential to play.”
The next step for Cozart is mastering more of the playbook and learning how to lead. After playing limited snaps in his debut against Oklahoma on Oct. 19, he completed four of 14 passes for 69 yards last week in a 59-14 loss to Baylor. Now the process continues, week by week, two quarterbacks looking to help Kansas win. But back at Miege, you hear a common sentiment: Don’t bet against Cozart in any competition.
“You put him in there and he just always does the right thing,” Holmes said. “He does a good job moving with the ball, and he always seems to make the right choices back there.”