On a dark summer morning at the Lawrence Country Club, Montell Cozart stood on a pool deck while chaos reigned and the sound of sloshing water cut through the air. A few feet away, dozens of Cozart’s Kansas teammates were in the pool, swimming laps in heavy, water-logged sweatshirts. A second group of KU football players were waiting for another round of calisthenics on the side. And then there was Cozart, the junior quarterback, taking in the incongruous scene of a Division I football team going through a military-style Marine Corps workout on the grounds of a plush country club.
This was The Program, a workout program designed to foster team-building and mental toughness, and in a few moments, Cozart was standing before his offensive teammates, tasked with barking out more instructions for a sand-bag relay. His legs felt like jello. His body was dead.
“It was mind-boggling,” Cozart said.
If Cozart had any personal doubts about his ability to lead, he says they started to disappear that summer morning at Lawrence Country Club. And really, he had no choice. Just months earlier, senior quarterback Michael Cummings had gone down in the spring game, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. On that day, as Cummings lay on the turf, Cozart approached and could see his good friend crying.
“Immediately, I started praying because I’m a religious guy,” Cozart said. “But I went out on the field, and I saw him crying. I shed a tear with him.”
The injury put Cummings’ senior season in jeopardy and thrust Cozart, a former Bishop Miege standout, into the role of presumptive favorite to begin the season as Kansas’ starting quarterback. That’s where Cozart remains after three days of fall camp, slightly ahead in a quarterback battle that also features freshmen Ryan Willis and Carter Stanley and a new dark horse in junior college transfer Deondre Ford.
“Obviously Montell Cozart, you've got to feel like he's got the inside track here,” first-year coach David Beaty said. “He is a very bright, hard-working, smart dude. He's what you want, man.”
Now a junior, Cozart believes he has the intangibles to lead. He also believes he has the experience to run Kansas’ new up-tempo, Air Raid scheme. The question comes back to production — an area where Cozart has scuffled during his first two years at KU.
In two seasons — including a tenure as the starting quarterback last season — Cozart has completed 45 percent of his passes and averaged 4.9 yards per attempt. He has thrown five touchdowns and nine interceptions — and three of those touchdown passes came against FCS opponent Southeast Missouri State.
Beaty, though, believes the new offensive system can help unlock the potential that exists in Cozart’s spring-loaded arm and nimble feet.
“He's a big kid, and he's got a really good arm,” Beaty said. “He's not just a below-average arm dude. He's got a good arm. Our big thing was trying to help him with decision making and speeding up his processing. And one of the ways that we did that was trying to put our pride aside and figure out how we can help this guy be as productive as he can be.”
To that end, Beaty and offensive coordinator Rob Likens have attempted to minimize Cozart’s responsibilities at the line of scrimmage. They’ve tried to simplify reads and make the offense as quarterback-friendly as possible. Beaty uses the analogy of knowing the answers to the questions before you take the test. As Cozart explains, if he can eliminate a few reads when he steps to the line of scrimmage, he can sort through a play faster, and perhaps find an open receiver.
“The offense is real fun — it’s simple,” Cozart said. “And I feel like that helps us not think as much. You get the play, now you can start paying attention to what the defense is doing.”
The quarterback competition is still in its infant stages. On Saturday, Beaty said Willis, another Bishop Miege product, was more advanced than he expected at this point. Stanley, meanwhile, has experience running the Air Raid in high school and Ford has been a pleasant camp surprise. (“I love his feet,” Beaty said of Ford. “I think he's a talented guy, I really do.”)
If recent history is any indication, more than one quarterback may get an opportunity to start before the end of the season. But for now, the job appears to be Cozart’s to win. In the weeks after the spring game, as the KU coaching staff prepared for the summer months, Beaty found himself offering a simple message to Cozart, whom he often calls “Tell.”
“If someone beats you out here, then it's your own fault, and I know it's not going to be because you don't work hard,” Beaty said, recalling the conversation. “That won't be what it is. [But] are you focusing on the things that you need to focus on to win the job?”
The conversation continued and Cozart listened to his coach — a coach who still believes despite two season’s worth of statistical evidence to the contrary.
“It was definitely one of those things with confidence,” Cozart said. “Now that I’m a junior, I feel like guys are starting to look to me now.”