LAWRENCE — For the second straight season, Kansas coach Charlie Weis has taken the reins from a highly-touted transfer quarterback and handed them to an unproven but more mobile signal-caller.
The Jayhawks thought they had found their quarterback for the next two seasons when Jake Heaps arrived from BYU, and he still may win back the starting job next season as a senior.
It just isn’t such a sure thing he’ll be under center.
After Heaps proved underwhelming in nine games as a starter, bottoming out with a 16-yard passing performance in a loss to Oklahoma, Weis gave freshman Montell Cozart a chance to become the quarterback of the future at Kansas (3-8, 1-7 Big 12), starting him the past couple games.
“The fact that he has been able to ease into it, I think that it has been good for him,” Weis said. “The much bigger step is taking it from the practice field to the game field because you’ve got to execute with a bunch of people in the crowd.”
Weis hasn’t said who will start on Saturday against Kansas State (6-5, 4-4), which has played two quarterbacks — Daniel Sams and Jake Waters — all season. But the depth chart still lists Cozart ahead of Heaps, so it appears he’ll be the one getting the first crack at the Wildcats.
Weis has limited Cozart’s availability since he started playing, but a recent quarterback was in a similar situation and ended up the Jayhawks’ most successful in recent years.
Todd Reesing didn’t play his first eight games as a freshman in 2006, but then-coach Mark Mangino started him for the second half against Colorado, and Reesing engineered a comeback win. The next season, he led Kansas to an Orange Bowl victory and finished as the Jayhawks’ career passing leader. Those are lofty expectations for Cozart to fulfill, but Reesing sees potential.
“If you don’t have a guy back there that can scramble and make some plays on an offense that’s struggling it’s going to be real tough to score points,” Reesing said. “I think when you get a guy back there who can make some plays with his legs, especially when he may not have as much time from the offensive line, I think that just gives the offense another dynamic.”
Heaps’ fall mirrors that of his predecessor, Dayne Crist.
Like Heaps, Crist was highly recruited, and Weis coached him for two seasons at Notre Dame before he transferred to Kansas and the two were reunited. But he completed only 48 percent of his passes and lost his starting job to Michael Cummings during the second half of the season.
Similarly, Heaps had a firm hold on the quarterback spot after turning heads on the scout team last season, and had his best game during a comeback win against Louisiana Tech in September, when he completed 28 of 46 passes for 279 yards — the most by a Kansas quarterback in two years.
After the victory, though, his numbers started to decline, and the low point came in the loss to the Sooners. It was the first time that Cozart had played all season.
“It definitely helps when your coaches are honest with you and they tell you what’s going on so you can be ready for it,” Heaps said. “It’s been easier for Montell and I to be able to have an expectation of what we’re going to do, what our roles are going to be.”
Cozart made his first start two weeks ago in an upset victory against West Virginia, and while he completed only five passes for 61 yards, he also ran for 60 yards.
Last week against Iowa State, though, showed just how much Cozart still has to improve to make Kansas consistently potent on offense.
He was just 4 of 12 for 20 yards, and the icy field in Ames limited his running ability. So in the third quarter, Weis put Heaps back in the game, and he wound up going 7 of 19 for 72 yards in the blowout defeat.
“We’ve had a lot of problems in the last couple of years when the quarterback freezes, the play’s now over,” Weis said. “One thing that happens with him when he freezes is the play could just be starting. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but there could be a lot more action.”