In what is sure to go down as the least surprising development of the offseason for Kansas football — even beating out the departure of former offensive coordinator Rob Likens — quarterback Ryan Willis announced Wednesday he is transferring out of the program.
The only mystery surrounding the next step of Willis’ college career was when he would reveal it and where he would go next. As it turned out, the two-year Jayhawk from nearby Bishop Miege chose Virginia Tech the week before the start of the spring semester at KU.
The notion that the QB’s days in Lawrence were numbered became clear months earlier, after head coach David Beaty decided to move on from Willis as a starter.
The first four weeks of the 2016 season, Willis bounced on and off the field, trading spots with Montell Cozart behind center. After that two-quarterback experiment failed, Beaty handed the offense over to Willis ahead of a home game against TCU. The Jayhawks nearly pulled off an upset victory in a 24-23 loss during Willis’ first start as a sophomore (he also started the final eight games of 2015 as a true freshman), and he threw for 348 yards against the Horned Frogs. However, he also threw three interceptions, lost a fumble and took six sacks in a winnable game.
The following week, at Baylor, went much worse. Again, Willis tossed three picks, and he only completed 10 of 19 passes for 89 yards. The Bears sacked him four times, and the Kansas offense didn’t score until late in what turned out be a 49-7 loss. Plus, KU’s lone touchdown came with Willis watching from the bench.
Willis never threw another pass for Kansas after that Baylor loss. Beaty went back to Cozart as the starter the following week — though that didn’t work either. By the time another switch came and redshirt freshman Carter Stanley took over at QB, it was easy to envision Willis, who still has two years of eligibility left, moving on. Once Beaty got junior college QB Peyton Bender, formerly of Washington State, on board and referenced him as a player who would push Stanley for the starting job, why would Willis even want to stay?
Beaty’s version of the Air Raid offense and Willis just didn’t fit. This isn’t to say Willis won’t play well at Virginia Tech if given the chance. He is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, has a strong arm, and is faster than one might anticipate when he runs. As evidenced by the sacks he took, Willis didn’t have the benefit of playing for a dominant offensive line and he probably held on to the ball too long at times, hoping for something other than a quick pass to the sideline to develop.
He needed a change and he got one at a university that, unlike Kansas, is known for football success.
Willis wasn’t going to become the quarterback who turned the KU program around, but he tried his best to do so while he was in Lawrence. Ultimately both sides can move on now, which is the most important aspect of it all.
Beaty and QB coach Garrett Riley can focus on developing Stanley, Bender and 2017 redshirt freshman Tyriek Starks for the coming season.
Realistically, four quarterbacks is too many, barring a series of unfortunate injuries. Willis knew that and left KU behind. Smart decision.
The next question is: will another similarly inspired Bishop Miege alum, Cozart, leave the quarterbacks room for another position for his senior season at Kansas? Spring football isn’t too far away and Cozart said a year ago he was open to switching spots if the staff needed him to. We shall see.
After his Kansas football team lost at Texas Tech last week, head coach David Beaty claimed he had no problem maintaining a two-quarterback approach, and made it clear he’s kind of over people asking him about it.
But the Jayhawks’ second-year coach might have been closer to sticking with one quarterback this past Thursday at Lubbock, Texas, than many realize.
During the first three games of the season fourth-year junior Montell Cozart started for KU, and the Big 12 opener proved no different. However, during the non-conference portion of the schedule a rotation pattern emerged. Cozart played the first two possessions of the game, then sophomore backup (or QB No. 1B, if you prefer) Ryan Wilis entered for the third. Where the rotation went from there varied somewhat from game to game, but the opening offensive strategy remained the same.
That changed, though, in what turned out to be a 55-19 loss to the Red Raiders.
Cozart played the first two series, as usual, then returned to the field for possession Nos. 3 and 4. Willis didn’t take over the offense until the second quarter, on the fifth possession of the game.
Keep in mind this is just a theory, but it sure seemed as if Beaty was prepared to keep Cozart on the field and abandon his swapping in and out approach at Tech. A 14-0 deficit and four consecutive fruitless drives appeared to force Beaty’s hand:
- 1st drive: 3 plays, 1 yard
- 2nd drive: 7 plays, 33 yards
- 3rd drive: 6 plays, 21 yards
- 4th drive: 3 plays, 3 yards
Cozart’s first-quarter struggles — 4-for-13 passing for only 36 yards — meant Beaty would have to be crazy to stick with him at that point, especially after the Jayhawks (1-3 overall, 0-1 Big 12) had so readily used multiple quarterbacks this season.
I asked Beaty during the post-game press conference whether his plan all along was to wait until the second quarter to insert Willis.
After pausing for several seconds, the coach responded:
“I’m not really wanting to talk about our plan. We know what we’re wanting to do with our guys and obviously we have two guys we know right now are very capable to run our offense … run the whole thing. And we’re not unlike a lot of other teams. We’re trying to go off what we see when we get to the game, too. And from that point you’ve got to make the decision based on what’s best to help you move the football.”
This came after Beaty had defended the two-QB scheme, saying the decision to take that route comes from what he and his staff see at practices. This response seemed to shed more light on the process, though, as he referenced evaluating in-game performance. After a quarter full of punting, Kansas had to switch to Willis.
Later in the same session with reporters, Tom Keegan asked Beaty about the upsides and downsides of using two quarterbacks instead of picking just one. KU’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator reiterated his line of thinking that the team lacks a “crystal clear” No. 1 QB. Then Beaty said something else that makes one think he wanted to hand the job to Cozart at Tech, before a lack of production forced the coach to return to what has become the offense’s status quo.
“On our standpoint right now,” Beaty said, “if a guy would get in there and he continued to produce then you would stay with him. But if a guy doesn’t do that then you continue to work and try and continue to find the answer.”
Give the man credit for not stubbornly sticking with Cozart. Willis took over quarterbacking duties at Tech and seemingly would’ve remained behind center until the game was decided had it not been for a small injury scare in the third quarter that forced him to the sideline for part of a series. Oddly enough Cozart came in to lead a touchdown drive.
It turned out neither Kansas quarterback left the Thursday night loss with good numbers. Willis finished 14 of 26 for 142 yards and a touchdown, while Cozart went 9-for-20 for 97 yards, a TD and a late-game interception (with KU trailing by 29 points).
Personally, I don’t think Willis handled sitting the entire first quarter well. The blame for that goes on Beaty as much as the QB. Willis’ throws were off once he finally entered the game, with incompletions on three of his first four attempts. It wasn’t until late in the second quarter that he finally looked comfortable. But even after connecting with freshman receiver Chase Harrell for an 18-yard score, Willis had incompletions on his next four passes.
Who knows at this point whether Willis or Cozart will start this week against TCU. But, as has been stated before, it sure seems as if Willis would benefit from starting a game and being allowed to play through it without fear of being replaced. If the sophomore doesn’t produce, you can always try something else the following week.
Ideally, though, the offense needs to discover some semblance of stability.
When Montell Cozart arrived at Kansas in 2013, the true freshman didn’t have all the answers.
Cozart had to figure out then-head coach Charlie Weis’s pro-style offense. For him, the transition was far from seamless, because the system wasn’t like the spread format he had success in at the high school level, at nearby Bishop Miege, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Cozart said Monday he doesn’t think KU’s incoming quarterbacks will have as many issues as they adapt to offensive coordinator Rob Likens’ Air Raid attack. Plus, true freshmen Carter Stanley (from Vero Beach, Florida) and Ryan Willis (also from Bishop Miege) have impressed the junior with their approaches.
“You can see those guys coming in ready to work,” Cozart said. “They both have ran similar offense to what we’re running now when they were in high school.”
KU’s new offense actually benefits every quarterback fortunate enough to play in it, according to Cozart.
“Now that we’re back to this offense,” Cozart said, “it gives all of our quarterbacks a lot of confidence, because we all can be successful in it.”
A few days into preseason camp, Kansas has eight quarterbacks on its roster:
Cozart (jr., 6-2, 193)
Keaton Perry (RS-fr., 5-10, 186)
Stanley (fr., 6-2, 188)
T.J. Millweard (jr., 6-4, 219)
Willis (fr., 6-4, 205)
injured Michael Cummings (sr., 5-10, 212)
Deondre Ford (jr., 6-1, 200)
Frank Seurer, Jr. (jr., 5-11, 190)
Cozart said there are “all sorts” of players in KU’s quarterback room, and their various skill sets are on display when the QBs go over practice video.
“We’ve got guys with cannons. We’ve got guys with good feet that can run a little bit,” he said. “This offense just helps everyone be successful and puts you in a great position.”
Both Willis, whom Cozart knows a little from their Miege connection, and Stanley, Cozart’s camp roommate, figure to be his primary competition in the race to become KU’s starter. The junior said every time he leaves a quarterbacks meeting, he comes away impressed with the true freshmen.
“When we’re watching film, you see them jotting down things, trying to get better and get to where me, T.J. and Mike are in this offense,” Cozart said. “They’re trying to catch up, and you can see those guys working great.”
For Cozart, it’s fun to have younger QBs around looking up to him. When each day of preseason camp ends, the quarterbacks throw the ball around and talk about “everything” as they all get to know each other.
“We’re always talking about football,” Cozart said. “Just little things around the nation, what’s happening in the sports world, getting to know one another.”
Sharing a room with Stanley for camp has allowed Cozart to discover a lot about him quickly. Cozart said they often watch video and bounce ideas off one another when they see certain things pop up on the screens in front of them. He said Stanley (freshmen and program newcomers can’t speak with media, per team rules) has fewer questions each day, a sign he is learning the offense and getting comfortable.
Likens wants all of the QBs making strides in those areas. Cozart said the coordinator and quarterbacks coach has harped on the importance of recognizing defensive structure at the line of scrimmage, a key component of the Air Raid offense for the signal-callers.
“You want to know the answer to the test before it even comes,” Cozart said.
At this point, it seems the junior might have more solutions this season than he did in the past, which is good news for the QB whom head coach David Beaty referenced as having the inside track on the starting gig.