Last Saturday afternoon, Kansas offensive coordinator Rob Likens watched his freshman quarterback drop back to pass. This was one of those moments where Likens must relinquish control and remain at peace, like a parent watching a teenage son try something crazy. As KU freshman quarterback Ryan Willis roamed the pocket and ran through his progressions, he chucked an ill-advised pass down the sideline to senior receiver Tre’ Parmalee.
“As the ball is flying through the air, I’m screaming: ‘No!’ ” Likens said. “Then Tre’ catches it and I’m like: ‘Yes!’ ”
There is no template for coaching and developing a true freshman quarterback — no hard-and-fast rules for the process. There are promising highs, and volatile lows, and at some point, Likens says, you just have to embrace the hope and the future. Fortunately for Likens, he’s only two years removed from an eerily similar situation.
In 2013 — Likens’ first season as an assistant at Cal — the Bears started a true freshman quarterback named Jared Goff and finished 1-11. Two years later, Goff is projected as a first-round NFL pick and Cal is 5-2 entering a showdown with USC on Saturday. To say Willis can match Goff’s trajectory might be wishful thinking, but at the very least, the example at Cal is keeping Likens sane.
“It has helped me to keep my head and my emotions in check right now,” Likens said, four days before Kansas, 0-1, was set to face No. 14 Oklahoma, 6-1, on Saturday in Lawrence. “Because there’s no telling what I’d be thinking right now if I didn’t go through that already.”
The situations are not perfect parallels. Like Willis, Goff played as a true freshman. But unlike Willis, Goff enrolled early and participated in spring football before winning the starting job as a freshman. Goff ended up strarting from day one, throwing for 3,508 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first season. Willis spent the first month of the season on the bench, needing an injury to starter Montell Cozart to open the door to substantial playing time. Still, Likens sees similarities between the 6-foot-4 Goff and the 6-foot-4 Willis.
“The comparison between him and Goff is their arm strength,” Likens said. “You might not think that they’re great athletes, but they’re sneaky. They kind of get out of trouble sometimes when you don’t expect them to. They’re not just statues, sitting back there like you might think.”
These days, Goff is more or less a finished product, lighting up defenses all over the West Coast. Kansas, meanwhile, remains in development mode with Willis. On most nights, KU head coach David Beaty says, Willis treks up to the Anderson Family Football Complex, watching film and checking in with his coaches. Willis has remained upbeat, too. After completing just 12 of 31 passes in last week’s 58-10 loss at Oklahoma State, Beaty said Willis showed no ill-effects.
“I really like this kid,” Beaty said. “I keep saying over and over again. I love his spirit. He was never — not one second did he have anything less than a smile on his face. It was almost like he didn’t know what he didn’t know, which is kind of good at times.”
There is no perfect template for a freshman quarterback. But if nothing else, the presence of Willis has helped soothe the burn from a winless start. Two years after enduring a 1-11 season at Cal, Likens can remember his time with Goff and pull some hope from that experience.
“It’s fun because their hope for the future is awesome,” Likens said of Willis and Kansas’ other young players. “It energizes us (as) coaches. In their mind, heck, they think they’re going to win a national championship. They’re just kids, and you love them for it.”
No. 14 Oklahoma at Kansas
2:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Lawrence; TV: Fox Sports 1
Other story lines
1. Attendance watch: Two weeks ago, Kansas officials announced an attendance of 25,186 for a home loss against Texas Tech. That came after just 25,910 fans showed up for a home loss to Baylor on Oct. 10. Saturday is Homecoming in Lawrence, which could serve to boost interest.
2. Can Kansas protect the football? Oklahoma has forced 12 turnovers in four games in October, including 10 interceptions. KU freshman quarterback Ryan Willis is coming off a two-interception game last week against Oklahoma State.
3. Jayhawks’ youth movement continues: After seven games, Kansas ranks first in the country in first-time players (37) and second in the country in first-time starters (30). On offense, the Jayhawks have started four freshmen in two of their last three games.