LAWRENCE — Montell Cozart was summoned to the office of Kansas football coach David Beaty on Monday morning, and to be honest, he sort of knew what was up.
One day earlier, Cozart, a junior quarterback, had sat down for his weekly one-on-one session with offensive coordinator Rob Likens. They discussed the totality of his preseason camp — sorting through the house-keeping of a new offense — and Likens, a first-year offensive coordinator, complimented Cozart for his consistent effort. Cozart, a Bishop Miege product, had entered camp as the front-runner to become Kansas’ starting quarterback. But Beaty and Likens desired a full evaluation, so they left the competition open for two full weeks.
On Sunday, Likens told Cozart he had earned the opportunity to be the man, and on Monday, Beaty made it official during his meeting with Cozart.
“We’re giving you the keys,” Cozart remembers Beaty saying. “It’s time for you to lead our guys.”
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The decision, which Beaty unveiled during a Monday news conference, was always the likely scenario after senior quarterback Michael Cummings suffered a torn knee ligament during the spring game in April. That left Cozart as the prospective favorite. For the last two weeks, juco transfer Deondre Ford and true freshmen Ryan Willis and Carter Stanley were given consideration, but Beaty said it was clear that Cozart was the Jayhawks’ top option.
“He’s been able to operate our offense effectively,” Beaty said. “What we’re looking for that quarterback to do, he’s been able to do that. He’s been able to move to team. He’s taken care of the ball. He’s valued possession, and he’s really become productive as a leader.”
Cozart, according to Likens, fits what the Jayhawks seek to do in their version of the Air Raid offense, a no-huddle, up-tempo system that will try to keep pressure on opposing defenses. Likens likes that Cozart can keep plays alive with his feet, and with the advantage of having spring practice, he was clearly ahead of the other quarterbacks in terms of knowing the system.
“He looks a lot more comfortable (as a runner),” Likens said. “And we’ve talked about that. He’s got to wear two hats. I expect him to be a pocket passer, go through his reads, looking down field … he does that really well.
“You kind of have to get him to get out of the pocket a little bit more and do what he can do.”
Cozart, of course, has been in this position before — and the results were far from perfect. After playing sparingly as a true freshman in 2013, Cozart won the job last fall under then-coach Charlie Weis. The offense never quite got off the ground. With Cozart completing around 50 percent of his passes, interim coach Clint Bowen turned to Cummings, who seized the position. Beaty, though, is hopeful a new offensive system can unlock Cozart’s potential and solve some of his accuracy and composure issues.
Beaty, in fact, tried to dispel the notion that Cummings would have been the starter if not getting injured.
“Mike got hurt, and he went down, and I think there was a misconception that he was our starting quarterback,” Beaty said. “Well, the truth was we were battling right there.”
For Beaty, the timing of the decision was natural. With two weeks remaining until Kansas’ opener against South Dakota State, the staff figured it was time to make a decision and start game-planning for week one.
“He has absolutely earned it,” Beaty said. “He’s known from day one that obviously he’s a guy that has some playing experience and he’s had some success. But he’s also had some things that haven’t gone great for him in the past.”
Those past struggles, perhaps, made Monday’s news a little sweeter for Cozart. After his meeting with Beaty, Cozart kept his new-found starter status to himself. He didn’t call anybody, not his mother or his family. He didn’t even tell his teammates. He’d figured the news would trickle out soon enough. Still, Cozart felt a rush of joy.
“I felt really great about it,” he said. “Like a weight lifted off my shoulders a little bit. Now it’s time to sit back and start getting ready for preparation for game one.”
While Cozart will start, Beaty said he had not determined who would serve as the Jayhawks’ No. 2 quarterback. Ford has taken reps at No. 2 for most of the last two weeks, but Beaty still appears intrigued by the talent of Willis, another Bishop Miege product. Beaty said Willis might have been Kansas’ most accurate quarterback to this point.
“Ryan Willis is a talented guy,” Beaty said. “He’s going to continue to push these guys, whether he’s second (or) third. He can put it where he wants to put it, whether he’s on the move or standing still. I like this guy. I like him a lot. He’ll continue to improve.”
Beaty said a decision on a No. 2 starter could come by the end of the week, and the question of redshirts could complicate the equation. Beaty said he would like to redshirt at least one or both of the Jayhawks’ true freshmen — Willis and Stanley — but the final decision will come down the road.
For now, though, Beaty said he would be comfortable with Ford spelling Cozart for a series in the event of injury.
“If Montell got dinged up in the middle of a series, you’d feel really good about him being available for you, which is really why he’s here,” Beaty said. “It was a situation where we lost Mike (Cummings), we needed to make sure we didn’t put a young guy in a bad position.”