As Montell Cozart peeled off his shoulders pads last Saturday inside a locker room at High Point Solutions Stadium, he turned to a teammate. He felt something different.
“I think that’s the most relaxed I ever felt in a football game ever,” Cozart said.
The night before, he had laid in his hotel room at the Embassy Suites in Piscataway, N.J., quarantined with a fever that reached as high as 104 degrees. He suffered from the chills. His body ached. At that moment, Cozart, Kansas’ starting quarterback, had little idea if he could take the field against Rutgers the next day.
Cozart did play, of course, coming on in relief of an injured Deondre Ford. The Jayhawks fell to 0-3 in a 27-14 loss, but Cozart discovered something, completing 13 of 18 passes for 193 yards in 2 1/2 quarters of playing time. With his body limited by the flu, Cozart says, he found the right gear.
“Everything was just slowing down for me,” Cozart says.
In three seasons at Kansas, the quarterback evolution of Cozart has followed a familiar pattern: Incremental progress followed plateaus and steps backward. At times, progress has appeared scant, and KU fans have wondered if it’s time to cut bait with Cozart and move on. But after last Saturday’s flu-infused performance at Rutgers, Cozart is hopeful the day serves as something close to a lynchpin moment.
“The game is slowing down for him,” says senior receiver Tre’ Parmalee, who has known Cozart since their days at Bishop Miege High School. “He’s starting to see things before they happen.”
When Kansas faces Iowa State at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Cozart will be back under center. Ford, who suffered a sprained thumb, has been ruled out for at least this week, meaning Cozart will have a chance to build on his solid relief performance against Rutgers.
“This guy is getting better,” KU offensive coordinator Rob Likens says.
It wasn’t just the flu, of course, that helped Cozart stay within himself. Cozart credits more time spent in the film room, leaving him more prepared for opposing defense. Likens says he’s gaining confidence in his quarterback, which could translate to more down-field throws.
“The first couple games,” Likens says, “I was protecting him a little bit on some play calls until we get into a good comfort level.”
Likens believes they found that comfort level against Rutgers. On most plays, Likens says, he handles the pre-snap reads to simplify things for Cozart. If there are fewer things on Cozart’s plate, Likens believes his quarterback can get the job done. There glimpses against Rutgers. Likens is hoping for more against Iowa State.
“When I can make it easy on Montell as far as different things to look at (before the snap), he operates at a really high level,” Likens says. “So I put a lot of the onus and pressure on myself in that way. What you want him to do is sometimes just slow it down.”
Kansas at Iowa State
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, Iowa
Records: KU 0-3, 0-0 Big 12; ISU 1-2, 0-0
Radio: KFH, 1240, 98.7-FM
Three story lines
1. The road streak hits Jack Trice Stadium: Last week, Kansas’ road losing streak hit 31 games in a loss at Rutgers. (It’s 34 games if you count three losses to Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium.) This could be Kansas’ last remaining chance for a road win. Two years ago, the Jayhawks were mauled 34-0 at Iowa State on a frigid November night. The temperature was freezing, and Kansas’ players said they did not have the correct cleats for the frozen field. This time, the weather shouldn’t be an issue.
2. Will Kansas use quarterback Ryan Willis? For the last week, David Beaty has hinted at using Willis, a true freshman from Bishop Miege, in certain packages. It’s unclear how those packages might look, but the KU staff appears determined to give Willis some reps while utilizing his big right arm. Willis played two snaps in Kansas’ season opener, but he hasn’t seen the field since. KU offensive coordinator Rob Likens says Willis has a “crazy” arm, but he’s still working on his reads and progressions in the passing game.
3. Can the Jayhawks put pressure on the QB? After three straight losses, Kansas is averaging 1.67 sacks per game, which is tied for 86th in the country. The KU defense has struggled to record negative plays — sacks, tackles for loss, etc. — and the results have shown up in the defensive numbers. In three games, the Jayhawks are yielding an average of 542.3 yards per game.