University of Kansas

Kansas QB Ryan Willis knows he needs to show toughness, strength

Jayhawks quarterback Ryan Willis was hurried by K-State defensive end Davis Clark in a Big 12 game in November.
Jayhawks quarterback Ryan Willis was hurried by K-State defensive end Davis Clark in a Big 12 game in November. skeyser@kcstar.com

Tony Severino’s words — spoken a decade ago — are ones that Kansas quarterback Ryan Willis lives by today.

Ever since a grade-school football camp, Willis has remembered one line from the Rockhurst High School coach: “The No. 1 thing a quarterback needs to have success on the field is toughness.”

And this is where you learn something new about KU’s sophomore quarterback. His father, Steve, preaches the value of displaying strength as well, saying that’s part of the family’s past.

“He tells me, ‘You’re a Cherokee Indian. We’re warriors,’ ” Willis said. “You’ve just got to act that way.”

A certain level of grit was needed a year ago, as Willis was able to survive a 2015 season where he was constantly knocked down.

KU surrendered 40 sacks last season — a number that ranked in the bottom 10 nationally — and Willis was on the field for most of them while starting the Jayhawks’ final eight games.

Willis, as one might expect, isn’t complaining.

“With adrenaline and everything, you don’t really feel the hits on the field,” Willis said. “You feel them a little bit the next day, just some soreness. It’s nothing too brutal.”

When he was able to play, Willis showed enough flashes to make him one of the favorites in this year’s ongoing quarterback battle. KU coach David Beaty says he will take his time making a decision between Willis and junior Montell Cozart, though Beaty was impressed enough last week to say that Willis had performed better in three straight practices.

“Those two guys — Montell and Ryan — have both had really good days,” Beaty said. “It’s been interesting to see guys fall behind, then a guy fight back and start taking back over.”

The biggest draw with Willis is his arm strength. He showed an ability to make tough throws last season while setting KU freshman records in passing yards (1,719) and touchdowns (nine).

“I like to just be a gunslinger out there, kind of have a Brett Favre mentality,” Willis said. “Just go for it when you can.”

That also has led to some struggles. Poor decisions from Willis led to late interceptions against Texas Tech and TCU in games where the Jayhawks were competitive in the fourth quarter.

Beaty, who is taking over play-calling duties this season, also has vowed to give more responsibility to his quarterbacks, meaning Willis will be asked to make more decisions at the line of scrimmage if he’s the starter.

“You’ve just got to be vocal to guys and show them the way,” Willis said. “They’ve just got to be able to trust in you.”

Willis is still rebuilding that trust after suffering an off-field right wrist injury. The ailment — KU football reported in a release that the injury happened during a pickup basketball game — kept him from fully participating in spring workouts. He was only able to get mental reps on the field while not actually throwing the football.

Willis described the injury as “a BS thing which should have never happened.”

“It was really unfortunate. I was disappointed. Coach was disappointed. My family was disappointed,” he said. “You’ve got to take it for how it is. It happened. We’ve got to move on to the next thing.”

Willis, an Overland Park native who attended both Olathe East and Bishop Miege, has appeared to make up ground on Cozart quickly. He says his wrist is “perfect” now and that it hasn’t affected him in fall practices.

“I’m happy where I am,” Willis said.

If he does win the starting job, it won’t be the first time he’s shown resiliency. That also was required a year ago when, hit after hit, he got to his feet and remained in the game.

Willis believes that quality might be in his blood. He is registered as a Cherokee Indian, has voted in elections and also has an identification card.

“Fun fact of the day,” he said with a smile. “I’m proud of it.”

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

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