The words came flying out as the young quarterback reached the sideline last Saturday at Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium. They caught a coach off guard, and perhaps set the tone for the rest of the Kansas football season.
It was late in the first quarter and Ryan Willis, a true freshman, found KU coach David Beaty on the sideline after his second offensive series of the season. Willis had taken a crushing hit, and Beaty was ready to offer a teaching moment. Then Willis spoke.
“Coach, he just knocked the dog out of me,” Willis said. “I’m ready to go.”
This was the moment, Beaty says, when he started to feel comfortable with the true freshman Willis under center. In a 38-13 loss to Iowa State, the Jayhawks turned to Willis for a series in the first quarter and again when starting quarterback Montell Cozart went down because of a shoulder sprain. A week later, Beaty will hand the keys to Willis on a full-time basis.
Cozart is sidelined indefinitely, and backup quarterback Deondre Ford is out for the season because of a thumb injury. So Willis will make his first career start against Baylor at 11 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. The last time Willis started a football game, he was quarterbacking Bishop Miege to a state title against Topeka Hayden in the Kansas Class 4A championship game last November. Eleven months later, he will face a national title contender.
“He’s excited about getting his first start,” Beaty said of Willis, who is not allowed to speak to reporters because of a team policy restricting all freshmen. “He’s basically lived up here with us, and he’s been doing that the entire time, trying to get himself ready. I can see it in his eye. He’s excited about this opportunity.”
The opportunity could be a baptism of sorts. Willis began the season as the Jayhawks’ third-string quarterback. He possesses a strong arm and a high upside — he was rated as Rivals’ 16th best pro-style quarterback in the 2015 class — but Beaty and offensive coordinator Rob Likens say Willis is still learning the Jayhawks’ system. So for now, Beaty said the staff will keep the offensive menu light.
“You can’t throw a lot on him and expect him to be great at all of it,” Beaty said. “We’ve got to find a few things he can really do well and let him exercise those things on the playing field out there.”
It’s impossible to predict injuries, of course, so perhaps Beaty didn’t envision Willis’ time coming this soon. But as the Jayhawks continue the long slog of a rebuilding process, they will get an extended look at a quarterback that could be a key piece to the future.
“He’s excited,” Beaty said. “I think that’s the thing that I’m most encouraged about with him. Man, he is really excited about this opportunity. He has no shortage of confidence.”
No. 3 Baylor at Kansas
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Lawrence
TV: Fox Sports 1
Other story lines
1. Attendance watch: In Kansas’ last home game, a 55-23 loss to Memphis on Sept. 12, KU announced an official attendance of 37,798. Will that number hold steady on a Saturday morning against Baylor?
2. Taylor Cox returns to the backfield: Senior running back Taylor Cox, who missed all of last season because of an Achilles’ injury, will return to the field for the first time on Saturday. Cox, who also took a medical redshirt in 2013, hasn’t appeared in a game since the 2013 season opener against South Dakota.
3. Can Kansas protect the quarterback? The Jayhawks’ offensive line has been shaky in recent weeks, and Baylor has one of the nation’s most fearsome pass-rushers in senior defensive end Shawk Oakman, who is listed at 6 feet 9 and 280 pounds.