LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas will start a freshman with only a couple dozen plays in college to his credit when the winless Jayhawks play unbeaten and third-ranked Baylor on Saturday.
That about sums up the most important position on the field at Kansas the past few years.
Ever since Todd Reesing started every game three straight seasons ending in 2009, nobody has held down the job with any success. Ryan Willis will be the ninth quarterback to start a game for Kansas since 2010, a period that coincides with some of the worst seasons in school history.
“I think a little bit can be attributed to luck, bad luck,” said defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, who was interim coach after Charlie Weis was fired last season. “Here in the past few years we’ve had to use our quarterbacks a little bit different. The offensive line struggles have led to some of those deals. It’s just a part of the program right now.”
The downturn in quarterback play began five years ago, when Turner Gill was hired to replace the fired Mark Mangino. Three different quarterbacks were named the starter in 2010 — Kale Pick for the season-opening loss to North Dakota State, freshman Jordan Webb for six games after that, and junior transfer Quinn Mecham when injuries and ineffectiveness set in.
Webb started all 12 games the following year, bringing a bit of stability. But he only won twice, and was briefly relieved by Mecham or Christian Matthews in six games. When Gill was fired, Webb transferred to Colorado.
David Beaty, the Jayhawks’ first-year head coach, was the wide receivers coach that year. He understands the importance of having a solid quarterback as much as anyone.
“When you’re building a program or trying to get a program back to the level that it once was at,” he said, “I think you’re always searching to try to get better.”
For all of Charlie Weis’s failures, he at least was in constant search of better.
When he took over for Gill, he brought in Dayne Crist from Notre Dame. He started six games before then-freshman Michael Cummings took over. The next year, BYU transfer Jake Heaps got his shot, only to be replaced by then-freshman Montell Cozart halfway through the season.
Cozart started last season, too, until Weis was fired. Cummings got another chance.
He was poised to start this season until tearing up his knee in the spring game, and that meant Cozart was back under center. But this season has been another revolving door at quarterback.
Cozart started the first couple of games before falling ill, and Deondre Ford took over against Rutgers. He ultimately tore ligaments in his thumb and underwent surgery on Tuesday, while Cozart sustained a shoulder injury in last week’s game at Iowa State and is out indefinitely.
All of that means Willis is in line to start against the Bears.
“Man, he’s excited about getting his first start,” Beaty said. “He’s basically lived up here with us, and he’s been doing that the entire time, trying to get himself ready.”
Just because Kansas has settled on quarterback No. 3 doesn’t mean Willis should feel comfortable. T.J. Millweard and Keaton Perry are still on the depth chart, waiting for their chance.
The way things have gone the last few years, it could come soon.
“You’ve got to go earn it,” Beaty said. “You have to go beat people. The only way you do that is you have to focus on how you get that done. You don’t get to show up, be in nice uniforms, go out there and play when there’s 50,000 people out there and expect it to work. You have to earn that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”