University of Kansas

KU freshman Ryan Willis set to start after Jayhawks lose top two quarterbacks

Kansas quarterback Ryan Willis (13) carried the ball in the second half against Iowa State on Saturday in Ames.
Kansas quarterback Ryan Willis (13) carried the ball in the second half against Iowa State on Saturday in Ames. AP

— Kansas freshman quarterback Ryan Willis is now poised to make his first career start as injuries continue to ravage a snake-bitten collection of KU signal callers.

Starting quarterback Montell Cozart is “out indefinitely” with a left shoulder sprain, while backup Deondre Ford will miss the rest of the regular season after suffering torn ligaments in his throwing hand, KU announced Monday. With Cozart and Ford unavailable, Willis is expected to start Saturday against No. 3 Baylor at Memorial Stadium.

Cozart was injured in last Saturday’s 38-13 loss at Iowa State, while Ford went down the week before at Rutgers. The Jayhawks are already without the services of senior quarterback Michael Cummings, who tore an ACL during the spring game in April and is unlikely to return this season.

In a new depth chart released Monday, Willis, a Bishop Miege graduate, is now listed as the No. 1 quarterback while reserve junior T.J. Millweard is listed as the backup. Freshman walk-on Keaton Perry is listed as the No 3. quarterback.

Willis completed eight of 16 passes for 100 yards while playing in relief of Cozart on Saturday. He had previously played two snaps in the season opener against South Dakota State. Now he will be under center as the Jayhawks, 0-4, play host to a national title contender at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Baylor, 4-0, is coming off a 63-35 destruction of Texas Tech — a performance in which Baylor led 49-21 at halftime. The Jayhawks will be on their third starting quarterback in five games after Cozart (three) and Ford (one) each earned starts during the season’s first four games.

The development is not ideal. Willis, a native of Overland Park, has drawn high marks from coaches for his arm strength and skill set, and he certainly looks the part. Listed at 6 feet 4 and 211 pounds, Willis was rated as a three-star recruit after throwing for 5,986 yards and 65 touchdowns during two seasons as the starting quarterback at Bishop Miege, the same high school that produced Cozart.

But to this point, Kansas coach David Beaty has chosen to bring Willis along slowly, citing his need for more seasoning. Last week, offensive coordinator Rob Likens praised Willis for his “crazy” arm strength, but said the freshman was still mastering the KU offensive system.

“Young guys, they love to stay on their reads a little long,” Likens said. “Ryan has a great arm — like a crazy arm. That guy can sling the football. In high school, I’m sure [he got] away with, ‘I’m just going to wait on this guy to get open,’ and then he can get it to him. In college, you can’t do that. You’re going to get sacked. In some scrimmages, he’s found that out.”

Against Iowa State, Willis was sacked twice and at other times played under heavy duress. But he still managed to flash his biggest asset, an arm that connected on a 38-yard completion to fellow true freshman Steven Sims.

“Real-world experience,” Beaty said on Saturday. “That’s the only way you learn. You got to get in there and play.”

Monday morning, Beaty appeared on the Big 12 teleconference and declined to give an update on Cozart, who was still undergoing tests on his injured right shoulder. In three seasons, Cozart’s play has been defined by inconsistency and inaccuracy. But he appeared to be making progress. In his last two games, Cozart had completed 28 of 39 pass attempts for 343 yards and a touchdown.

By early Monday afternoon, though, Beaty was ready to unveil the latest bit of bad news for a program in desperate need of some good fortune.

For now, the timeline on Cozart’s potential return remains sketchy. Which means it’s time for Willis to take the reins — now and possibly the future.

“Our kids have done a great job of really battling, even in the face of a lot of adversity,” Beaty said. “We’ve actually got some really good leadership on this team.”