Kansas freshman Ryan Willis is confident, poised, boasts a strong arm, and could be the starting quarterback the remainder of his college career.
In just three games as a starter this season, Willis has shown flashes of promise that has KU coach David Beaty believing his future is quite bright.
“If he keeps improving, I think he's got a chance to be a really good player in this conference,” Beaty said. “I really do. He has shown me no reason to believe that he will do anything other than that.”
Pressed into starting duty with the injuries to Montell Cozart and Deondre Ford, Willis had an impressive game against Baylor on Oct. 10, completing 20-of-36 passes for 158 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He then built off that performance with a banner contest against Texas Tech, nearly leading KU to a victory by completing 35-of-50 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns with one pick.
The former Bishop Miege star broke freshman records for passing yards, completions, and attempts. His 330 yards ranked No. 22 all time at KU, while his 50 attempts were the most since Todd Reesing threw 55 times against Missouri in 2009. Willis’ 35 completions, meanwhile, tied for No. 5 in school history and were just two shy of tying a school mark, while his 70 percent completion percentage ranked No. 3 in KU annals with a minimum of 30 completions.
Willis earned Athlon Sports National Freshman of the Week for his efforts.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep the momentum going last week against Oklahoma State and its stout defensive line, which pressured him all day. Willis completed just 12-of-31 passes for 191 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
While it was a subpar performance, Beaty never yelled at him and used every minute on the sideline as a teachable moment to Willis. He listened. He soaked in all the information. He kept his head up. He wanted to get better.
And it’s this positive attitude by Willis that’s one huge reason Beaty is so high on this intelligent and studious freshman.
“He handles his business,” Beaty said. “He was up here (Anderson Family Football Complex) last night (Monday). He's up here every night which is something you want to see from a young quarterback. He loves the game and he's a talented guy. He listens and he tries to apply what you tell him to.
“The thing I also like about him is he's not exactly a robot,” Beaty continued. “There are times when he'll get out on his own and do some things and make a play every now and then.”
Beaty, though, knows that Willis needs to correct his interceptions and fumbles. But the head coach is confident he will.
“Now, he's got to take care of the ball security aspect because that's raised its head in every game he's played in so far,” Beaty said. “Those things can be prevented when you've got your eyes on the right place and you understand what the coverage is, and you understand what the front looks like. As he continues to grow though, the more he sees it, the better he's going to be. And we're trying to give him a gazillion looks right now. And believe me, he's getting a gazillion looks. Those guys are giving him about the hardest stuff he'll get right now. I think he'll only get better as he does it more. We have to do a good job of protecting him to keep him healthy.”
And then Beaty said it when a reporter asked him whether Willis reminds him of anyone. The answer had to open the ears of everyone in Jayhawk Nation.
“He's a big quarterback (6-4, 205) and man, I haven't been around a lot of them, to be honest with you. He reminds me a little bit of like, I'd say maybe, Kliff (Kingsbury, 6-3, 213-pound former Texas Tech star quarterback and current Red Raiders head coach) back in the day because he's a tall, long guy, very accurate, very, very accurate," Beaty said. "And moves a lot better than you think he does. He's a unique guy. He has a little bit of a different skill set than people. Kliff probably moved a little bit better than him.”
To hear Beaty compare Willis to the Tech legend says mountains. All Kingsbury did during his TTU days (1999-2002) was become only the third player in college football history to throw for over 10,000 yards, gain over 10,000 yards in total offense and complete over 1,000 passes in a career. He also became just the fourth player in college football to throw for over 3,000 yards three times during his career.
In all, Kingsbury set 39 school records, 16 Big 12 marks and 17 NCAA records. After his senior season in 2002, Kingsbury finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy vote and was awarded the Sammy Baugh Trophy (presented annually to the nation’s best college quarterback) and named The Associated Press National Offensive Player of the Year.
While his NFL career never panned out (Kingsbury played just one game and threw two passes for the New York Jets in 2005), Kingsbury left an indelible mark on college football.
If Willis turns out to be even half as good as Kingsbury, the KU quarterback position is in very capable hands the next three years.