A few days ago, before Kansas coach David Beaty arrived at the Omni Dallas Hotel for Big 12 Media Days, he stood inside his corner office at the Anderson Family Football Complex in Lawrence and looked out toward the turf-covered field at Memorial Stadium.
It was a steamy summer day, and on the field, a group of Kansas football players were running through some seven-on-seven drills. As coach, Beaty is prohibited from having on-field contact with his players during the summer months, but on this day, he caught a glimpse of a small figure, tossing passes under the Kansas sun.
It was senior quarterback Michael Cummings, and if nothing else, it was a nice sign. In early June, Cummings had undergone knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, an injury suffered during the program’s spring game in late April. Now Cummings was back on the field, throwing a few passes as his ACL rehab process continued.
“He is a unique guy,” Beaty said, sitting inside a Dallas ballroom on Monday afternoon.
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The Kansas quarterback question is a complicated one, and it was this way even before Cummings was cut down during a broken play in the spring game. Cummings, who finished last season as the Jayhawks’ starter, could miss the entire season while recovering from his knee injury, Beaty confirmed on Monday. That leaves junior Montell Cozart atop the depth chart with two incoming freshmen — Florida high school product Carter Stanley and Bishop Miege graduate Ryan Willis — both likely to compete for time during fall camp.
For now, Beaty is willing to be patient in naming a starter, but the odds appear stacked in Cozart’s favor — at least during fall camp.
“I got to believe that Montell has the inside track,” Beaty said, “but he’s still going to have to earn it.”
In their first season under Beaty, the one-time Texas high school football coach who is inheriting a depleted and downtrodden Big 12 program, the Jayhawks enter the fall with serious roster issues — the program had just 64 scholarship players this summer. But if Beaty and new offensive coordinator Rob Likens can find a quarterback who can move the ball in their Air Raid Offense, that would soothe one of the program’s chronic issues under former coach Charlie Weis.
Beaty is also not ruling out Cummings for the entire season. It’s possible, Beaty says, that Cummings could be ready to play toward the end of the year. It’s also possible, though, that Cummings will sit out and attempt to gain a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.
“If anybody can get ready, it’s going to be Michael Cummings,” Beaty said. “I promise you that.
“Here’s the problem: You’re still dealing with an ACL tear, so the reality of that is it can take a little while. Now we’ve come a million miles. That used to be a year (rehab). And what used to be a year, I’ve seen guys playing on that in six months or less.”
The injury to Cummings could open the door for Cozart, who has largely been ineffective while playing parts of two seasons under Weis and interim coach Clint Bowen. Cozart completed just 36 percent of his passes during his true freshman campaign before throwing for 701 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions as a sophomore. Cozart began last season as the starter before being benched after five games.
The other candidates are promising — yet still unproven. Willis, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound freshman, was a three-star recruit who guided Bishop Miege to a state title on the strength of his big arm. Stanley, meanwhile, is a dual-threat quarterback from Vero Beach, Fla., a prospect who largely flew under the radar until late in the recruiting cycle. Both arrived on campus this summer, and while Beaty has not seen either on the field, he has received glowing reports from veteran players and strength coach Je’Ney Jackson.
“The guy has got great wind,” Beaty said of Willis. “He kills it in those 5 a.m. workouts. He’s got some mental toughness to him. The (other players) are coming in, talking about how he can wing it. He can throw it. Carter Stanley … the same thing.”
Sophomore tight Ben Johnson is among those who has been impressed with both Willis and Carter during seven-on-seven drills.
“They’re both hard workers, so there’s definitely going to be a fight for that position,” Johnson said. “I think competition brings out the best in everybody. It’s definitely going to be a fight.
If you have watched Kansas football during the last five years, nobody has to tell you about the years of substandard play at the quarterback position. In the years after the record-smashing Todd Reesing, the KU quarterback position has been a wasteland of castoffs, place-holders and grinders trying to roll a bowling ball up a sheet of ice. For a brief stretch last season, Cummings appeared to lock down the job with some stirring performances — relatively speaking, of course. For now, though, Cummings is indefinitely sidelined, and Beaty is left to find another answer behind center.
“If we could make that decision a couple weeks into camp, that would be great,” Beaty said. “But we’re not going to unless we know. And the good thing is we’re going to know pretty quick.”