LAWRENCE — Montell Cozart knows he shouldn’t say this. He knows he should remain humble, knows he should be bland, knows that his Kansas coaches might read these quotes and tell him to cool it.
It is Monday afternoon, and this is the fourth day of fall camp, and this is the University of Kansas, which means there are certain unwritten rules. It’s not advised, for instance, to talk trash on the school’s vaunted basketball program.
But Cozart, Kansas’ sophomore quarterback, can’t help himself. He grew up playing basketball, his first love, and some of that backcourt swag still oozes. So he’ll tell you straight up. Yes, he’s played some pickup basketball against the Kansas players. And yes, the football team has even won.
“I know I’m not supposed to say this,” Cozart says, “but one time we were at the (KU recreation center), and the football players were playing against the basketball players, and we actually beat them.”
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This was last year, Cozart explains, one of those quiet days at the rec center in the offseason. There were a few football players there, and a few basketball players, and in a few minutes, they were choosing up sides. On one team was Cozart, senior receivers Tony Pierson and Nick Harwell and former tight end Charles Brooks, a one-time high school basketball standout with some size. The football guys also had basketball walk-on Christian Garrett as a fifth. Meantime, the basketball side was loaded with regulars from the Big 12 champs — Joel Embiid, Jamari Traylor, Naadir Tharpe, Frank Mason and some fifth player lost to memory.
The games were to 15, Cozart says, and maybe the basketball players were taking it easy. It was the offseason, after all. But for now, this is what we know: In one of the games, Cozart and his teammates pulled out a 15-12 victory.
“I feel like we got the handle on them because of speed and then we’re more physical,” says Cozart, a Bishop Miege graduate. “So we beat them up.”
Cozart says this with pride. And how can you blame him? On a basketball-crazy campus, a group of football guys beat the blue bloods at their own game.
A year ago, Cozart probably doesn’t tell this story. He was a freshman then, and still just 18. He understood his place. As the season began, he was still behind incumbent starter Jake Heaps on the depth chart. As KU quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus says, Cozart was still “finding his niche” in the program.
Even when Kansas coach Charlie Weis ripped off Cozart’s redshirt in mid-October, the freshman was still finding his voice. Weis calls it nerves; Cozart uses the term “jitters.” You might call it inexperience. Cozart completed just 36.5 percent of his passes while playing in seven games, and he certainly looked like a signal-caller that needed some time and development.
“I think the biggest thing is not being nervous,” Weis said, “because accuracy is never an issue when you watch him throw in practice.”
One year later, Cozart is the starter. He beat out Heaps in the spring, forcing the senior to transfer to Miami in search for playing time. And for now, Cozart seems to have mastered the jitters on the practice field. He took ownership of the offense during summer conditioning, and Weis spurred him to become more of a leader in the locker room.
“It’s really just the way he’s carried himself,” Powlus says.
Now Cozart will attempt to translate that practice swag to the playing field, where he’ll become the sixth quarterback to start an opener for Kansas in six years. For the better part of this decade, the KU quarterback position has been a revolving door of questions. New offensive coordinator John Reagan has brought the spread offense back to Kansas. But if you listen to Weis and Reagan, the offensive equation becomes clear. If you don’t have a dependable quarterback, it doesn’t matter how innovative a system you install.
“I’d pick the quarterback 100 out of 100 times,” Weis says, “no matter which scheme you have.”
Cozart, who turned 19 on Monday, will try to stabilize the position with a mix of athleticism and swag. He’s a dual-threat quarterback who prefers to be labeled as a passer. If you ask him about running, he’ll say that he can. But he’s the kind of quarterback that would prefer to escape the pocket and use his legs to buy more time for a pass.
“I don’t want to rely on running,” Cozart says, “but I don’t mind running.”
Some of this makes sense. Five years ago, Cozart was a high school freshman who gave up football for one year to focus on basketball. His future probably resided on the hardwood, he thought, and he never gave too much thought to playing quarterback. So perhaps it’s not a surprise to see Cozart smile as he talks about a pickup basketball game from last school year. For a moment, he starts to crack on the basketball guys. He’s comfortable now, and he sits up in his chair.
“It was real fun,” Cozart says. “They had a lot more possessions than they should have had, because they were calling fouls for no reason.”