The maturation of a quarterback moves slowly, in small moments, sometimes day by day. Montell Cozart is just 19 years old, in his first full season as the Kansas starter, and that means certain moments can still feel like a blur of objects and schemes.
Some days are better than others. Last Saturday was a good day.
One week after completing just 11 of 27 passes in a forgettable performance at Duke, Cozart responded with a resurgent effort in Kansas’ 24-10 victory against Central Michigan. He hit on 23 of 33 passing. He racked up 226 yards through the air. He made an assortment of accurate throws in the fourth quarter, helping the Jayhawks survive a close battle.
“It feels good,” Cozart said. “It just lets you know what you’re capable of.”
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In some ways, though, this was just the latest step. KU offensive coordinator John Reagan aided Cozart’s cause with a game plan that was heavy on screen passes and short throws — a plan designed to give the young quarterback confidence. For the most part, the scheme worked. But now Cozart will have to prove he can keep maturing, that he can put up numbers against Big 12 defenses and continue the forward trajectory.
“I think that the defense we played last week allowed for some things to happen,” Reagan said Tuesday. “I think we will see a very different defense this week — not by just different personnel, but by different schemes.”
To be specific, the next part of the maturation begins Saturday, when Kansas, 2-1, will face Texas, 1-2, at 3 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. From a numbers standpoint, it could be the toughest defense Cozart has faced in his young career. The Longhorns’ defense ranks third in the Big 12 in total defense and third in passing defense, allowing just 140.7 passing yards per game.
Some of Texas’ success defending the pass can be traced to competition — the Longhorns have played some run-heavy teams. But Reagan’s point was clear: The performance against Central Michigan — and the raw efficiency numbers — might not translate as easily against Texas.
“It’s a different set of encyclopedias this week,” KU coach Charlie Weis said, before adding: “You’re looking at different areas of the field now than you were looking at last week.”
Central Michigan played two high safeties, giving Cozart plenty of looks in the short passing game. Texas, meanwhile, will likely employ one high safety or cover three, providing Cozart with his next challenge.
“We feel good about this game plan, so I’m actually pretty confident,” Cozart said. “We’re kind of taking it as like: ‘We have a chip on our shoulder. It’s Homecoming.’ Texas … they’re not doing so well right now. They’re looking at us as a team to come in here and try to get back on a roll (against), and we’re trying not to be that team.”
For Cozart, there are other reasons to be feel encouraged. The Texas defense has shown signs of being vulnerable to a mobile quarterback. On Sept. 6, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill rushed for 99 yards in the Cougars’ 41-7 blowout of Texas. And that leads to the next element of Cozart’s growth.
“I tell him,” senior receiver Nick Harwell said, “if anything breaks down, use your legs.”
To this point, Cozart has often looked hesitant to utilize his athleticism. Over three games, Cozart has looked shaky trying to incorporate the option into the Jayhawks’ spread offense. Reagan describes the option issues as a relationship problem between quarterback and running back. The two have not been in sync, and the results have often been ugly.
“We have to get a lot better,” Reagan said. “We have had some opportunities in the past two games.”
This week, Cozart studied film from the BYU-Texas game, watching how Hill, the BYU quarterback, exploited Texas with his legs.
“That’s the game I’ve been watching the most,” Cozart said.
For Cozart, who never ran the option in high school, the finer points of the play have given him some trouble. Sometimes, he says, he’s been too “downhill” while running the option. Other times, the running back has been too close to Cozart while they execute the option pitch. It’s been frustrating. But Cozart believes he’s making progress.
For now, that’s the goal: progress. And if the Jayhawks see an opening for the option on Saturday, Cozart insists that he’ll be ready.
“It kind of goes hand in hand,” Cozart said. “We’ve been working on it a lot this week, and it’s kind of been (an) emphasis going into this game.”