Plan A was supposed to be Michael Cummings. Plan B was Montell Cozart. Plan C was actually walk-on junior college transfer Deondre Ford. And after just four games as Kansas’ offensive coordinator, Rob Likens already needed a new plan.
“I’ve never been through anything like that before,” Likens said this week. “I never envisioned this thing going down the way it did.”
Cummings was lost to a season-ending ACL tear in Kansas' spring game. Cozart needed season-ending shoulder surgery. Ford was lost for the year to a thumb injury. At least something good came from all that bad luck: Plan D worked out.
Ryan Willis really had no choice. Ready or not, the true freshman took over for the Jayhawks’ final eight games and finished with 1,719 passing yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions, completing 52 percent of his passes. During the course of a painful, winless season, Willis emerged as one of the silver linings.
“I saw a kid that has a lot of confidence and an extremely talented arm,” Likens said. “He’s got a big-time arm and he’s very courageous. He embraced the situation instead of letting it get too big. He’s very, very competitive. He’s one of those guys when the game starts, he’s a little bit different than he is during the week -- in a good way.”
He took his lumps along the way, that’s for sure. Willis was sacked 31 times and hit or pressured on nearly 25 percent of his dropbacks. His protection wasn’t great. Another true freshman, Larry Hughes, started nine games at right tackle. Freshman Clyde McCauley III made three starts at left tackle.
“He knew he had very limited time to throw the football,” Likens said. “Everything had to be quickened. It was a very tough spot to be put into for a young guy.”
Still, Willis got to throw the ball 315 times against Big 12 defenses. That had to be a good thing for his long-term development. Even in games that were essentially over by halftime, coach David Beaty and Likens left Willis in and let him keep battling.
Their message to him: Just manage the game, get a little better and try to treat every drive like the score is 0-0.
“I wanted him to just get a feel for the offense and not, ‘Hey, we’re down by 40, let’s try to chuck 20-yard passes every down,’” Likens said.
Kansas was outscored 392-95 in Willis’ starts, which begs the question: How does all that losing affect a young quarterback? How do you keep his head in a good place? Fortunately, Likens has unique experience on that front: He coached at Cal in 2013 when the Bears went 1-11 in Sonny Dykes’ debut season.
The starting quarterback that year? A true freshman named Jared Goff. He threw more than 500 passes, lost every conference game and didn’t lose his confidence.
“Just him knowing I’ve been through it kind of gives me a little bit of credibility with Ryan,” Likens said. “I’m only two years removed from going through this with a QB who’s probably going to go in the first round, you know? I’ve kind of been there before.
“So don’t let this get you down. Jared went through the same thing. Hearing that as somebody he can relate to has helped the situation out.”
Likens sees a bright future for Willis as well as a lot to fix. He’ll be put to the test all over again in spring ball. He might be the frontrunner, but Willis will still have to compete with redshirt freshman Carter Stanley to re-earn the starting job.
“That’s going to be a great battle,” Likens said. “We scrimmaged twice a week with the young guys during the season. Carter got a ton of reps in scrimmages and running the offense and did really, really well.”
Even if he might be one of the most important pieces in Kansas' long rebuild, Willis isn't going to be handed the job in 2016. Everything must be earned, as Beaty always says. For Willis, it's time to prove deserves to be the new Plan A.