The black watch on Montell Cozart’s left wrist is five minutes fast. Maybe that’s the best place to start when trying to explain why the junior quarterback is representing Kansas at Big 12 media days when he hasn’t been named the starter as of yet.
Cozart says this is a small detail that helps him with a larger goal. There are 4:30 a.m. alarms for workouts and team meetings he has to attend — and at this point in his career, there’s no excuse for being late.
“When guys walk in, they see me there. When coaches walk in, they see I’m already there,” Cozart said. “Hopefully it motivates guys around me to do the same.”
KU safety Fish Smithson is sitting to Cozart’s right, and perhaps he can help explain why Cozart is here as well. The two share a common major — sports management — and there have been a few times when an assignment has slipped Smithson’s mind.
Cozart is the guy who has been there to remind him when a paper was due or a quiz was coming.
“The 100s I got could have been zeroes here and there,” Smithson said with a laugh. “He definitely saved me.”
Smithson says Cozart is one of the most accountable players on the team, and KU coach David Beaty follows by saying the quarterback is a model for his teammates.
The potential awkwardness of the situation is still difficult to avoid. Yes, Cozart was voted as a team captain a year ago, but his presence at media days will look out of place in a few months if he doesn’t win the starting job over Ryan Willis (who started the last eight games last season before a wrist injury in the spring) and Carter Stanley this fall.
Beaty, though, says that wasn’t on his mind when he told Cozart he was going to make the trip to Dallas.
“Montell is here because he earned it, period,” Beaty said. “He’s one of the hardest workers we have on this team.”
Just to be clear, Beaty insists this competition hasn’t ended. On Monday, he said he would rely on seeing a “clear divider” in early practices that would tell him which quarterback would be best for the Jayhawks in their first game against Rhode Island.
“I honestly do not know which one it will be. How could I?” Beaty said. “Ryan Willis hasn’t taken a snap in this (new offense) yet, and there’s no way I’m not going to let him be in that competition. That dude’s good. He’s talented.”
Then again, he’s behind. The wrist injury limited him to “mental repetitions” in the spring during a crucial time when Beaty was implementing his own version of the Air Raid offense.
Then there’s this: Beaty has given rave reviews for Cozart’s offseason even after a disappointing spring game, going as far as to say he’s been “phenomenal.”
“That guy’s been through some criticism … I don’t know how much sometimes guys can take,” Beaty said. “But man, he is a picture of poise and gets through it.”
Cozart believed it might have all come together last season had he stayed healthy. He said he was having fun like a few years back, playing instead of thinking while bringing back memories of old flag football games.
Then, on Oct. 3, an Iowa State defender landed with full force on Cozart’s shoulder after he threw a pass away. After looking down, Cozart saw that his bone had popped out of place, similar to what someone would see with a dislocated finger.
He would miss the final eight games before season-ending shoulder surgery in November.
“I felt like that’s when I was playing at my best,” Cozart said. “Now I’m trying to get back there.”
KU fans are likely to be cautious with their optimism. Cozart was the starter in 2014 before getting replaced, then also disappointed at times in 2015, which included a fumbled snap at the end of the season-opener against South Dakota State that cost KU a chance at a game-tying field goal.
“I don’t know too many people that can handle some of the criticism he’s already received,” Smithson said. “I think some people would just give up or went to coach, ‘Can I switch positions?’ But he hasn’t done that at all. He’s definitely coachable, and he’s competing every day.”
For now, Cozart says he’s just happy with another chance. Each day, he picks out a color — red, blue or white — for the bracelet he wears on his right wrist. “KU football” is written on one side of each, and Beaty’s team slogan, “Earn it” is on the other.
Cozart says it’s a reminder of what he still has to accomplish.
“I came here for a reason, and that was for us to lay the foundation for us to get back to where we were,” Cozart said. “I know we can get there.”