Michael Cummings is still here.
This perhaps is the first thing you notice about the veteran Kansas quarterback, on his third coach and entering his fifth season after outlasting a long list of failed transfers and unproductive signal-callers. Cummings is still here after signing with Turner Gill. That was four years ago. He is still here after being buried on the bench for most of Charlie Weis’ tenure. He is still here, still competing for the starting quarterback job under first-year coach David Beaty.
Cummings, a 5-foot-10 quarterback from Killeen, Texas, finished last season as the Jayhawks’ starter under interim coach Clint Bowen. But just five months later, Beaty declared the position an open competition. Maybe some quarterbacks would grouse about having to prove themselves again under a new coach. Cummings welcomes the chance — something he didn’t quite have in the past.
“I’m excited that this is an actual competition,” Cummings said. “That’s something that I think our position group is excited about.”
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On Saturday, Cummings will have an opportunity to prove himself in a game setting when the Jayhawks convene for their annual spring game at 1 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. Cummings is battling with junior Montell Cozart, who began last season as the starter, and junior T.J. Millweard, a former UCLA transfer. All three will likely see ample playing time on Saturday when the Jayhawks’ unveil their new Air Raid offensive system.
Beaty and offensive coordinator Rob Likens say they are in no hurry to name a starting quarterback. And for good reason. Two incoming freshmen — Bishop Miege’s Ryan Willis and Carter Stanley of Vero Beach, Fla. — are expected to join the competition in the fall, which could add more question marks to the position. But for now, Cummings is trying to settle into a new offensive system and embrace the battle.
“There’s been a real emphasis on a winner and loser in everything we do,” Cummings said. “There’s a big emphasis on competition, from rep to rep. That’s been the main focus throughout the spring.”
Cummings threw for 1,715 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, stirring a passing attack that had plodded along for the better part of three seasons. His measurable success was relative, of course. While starting the last seven games, he completed 56.8 percent of his passes. He threw for nine touchdowns. He also tossed six interceptions. Nobody would mistake Cummings for an All-Big 12 quarterback, or even former KU quarterback Todd Reesing in his worst year. But Cummings provided something that Kansas hadn’t received in three seasons: Adequate and competitive play at quarterback.
He also showed an inclination for the big play. Against Oklahoma State, Cummings completed a 51-yard pass; against TCU, he connected with Nigel King for 78 yards and Jimmay Mundine for 67 yards.
There were more plays like those, but one year later, Cummings says he wants to be “more of a playmaker; less of a game manager.” Last year, with Cummings playing quarterback, the Jayhawks transitioned to a more up-tempo style during the season’s final months. Likens, a first-year offensive coordinator, has cranked the tempo even more this spring.
“This is definitely one of the more player-friendly offenses,” Cummings said.
Cozart, meanwhile, is still in the picture after losing the starting job last season. After seeing minimal time as a freshman, Cozart earned the role last year with an impressive spring performance. The regular season, though, was forgettable. Cozart completed 50 percent of his pass attempts while throwing five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“Last year, I was up and down,” Cozart said. “And then I let a little bit of the situation get the best of me.”
Standing 6-foot-2 with above-average athleticism, Cozart profiles as a player that could potentially transition to another position, such as receiver. For now, nobody on the Kansas staff has discussed a switch publicly, and Cozart makes it clear that he came to KU to play under center.
“I’ve never played receiver or anything like that,” Cozart said. “I came here to play quarterback. If it’s to work out for the team, I’m willing to do it. The only other position I played in my lifetime was (cornerback), so I’ve never had any experience playing receiver or different things like that. But if it’s to benefit the team, I’m willing to do it.”
When the KU spring game concludes on Saturday afternoon, the quarterback position will likely remain up in the air. Cummings is still here, and so is Cozart. And the competition may rage into the fall. On an afternoon earlier this spring, Cummings was asked a simple question: Is it his job to win?
“I feel like it’s my job to go out and compete,” Cummings said. “And we go out there every day, ready to take on the world.”
KU spring game
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lawrence
TV: Cox 22