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Former Arundel star Billy Cosh hopes fourth time is the charm

It's more of a faraway vision to Billy Cosh now: at the end of a country road, Arundel's football field, the quarterback's canvas under the hazy white glow of a Friday night. That was where the state of Maryland's all-time leading passer painted his legacy and where possibilities seemed as limitless as the magic from his right arm.

"I miss it, you know?" said the 21-year-old Cosh, a 2009 Arundel graduate now on scholarship at the University of Houston with two years of eligibility remaining.

It is his fourth college in as many years.

"At Arundel, we'd throw it every time," he said. "That's why I came to Houston. I wanted to get back to those roots."

When Chuck Markiewicz gave the hand of his offense to Cosh as a junior, the marriage was bliss. The quarterback met the playbook that brought him unbridled happiness, and that's because the playbook allowed him to pass an unlimited number of times.

In two years as a starter, Cosh passed for 7,433 yards and 112 touchdowns, state career records. He finished with a 22-3 record.

"Billy was the most accurate quarterback we've ever had," Markiewicz said. "He could make any throw."

He was the incoming shaggy-haired freshman who appeared at practice one summer day, the new kid from Kansas, where his father, Chris Cosh, coached linebackers at Kansas State in 2004 and 2005. Maryland was the seventh state Billy moved to as the son of a journeyman college football coach who was Maryland's linebackers coach and defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2008.

Billy Cosh learned the game by going to practices with his father coaching at South Carolina and by watching with eager curiosity. In Kansas, Billy began playing as a 13-year-old in a middle school 8-on-8 league.

"I don't think anybody knew about this new kid, the Kansas country boy," recalls R.J. Harris, who would go on to catch 2,618 yards and 48 scores from Cosh and become his best friend.

Harris, now entering his junior year at New Hampshire, had plans of showing himself as the school's future signal-caller that summer.

"But I saw him throwing and that's when I knew," he said, laughing. "Yeah, I wasn't playing quarterback."

Cosh's production was the output of his obsession. In the summer, Harris and others had their phones rattling with Cosh's beckons to go work on routes. Cosh couldn't sit for Arundel's hourlong lunch periods, and so he'd gather his receivers to go throw, or he'd go to the football offices to watch film.

"He's almost to the point where he's an oddball," Markiewicz said. "He's peculiar because that's all he'd want to do."

Said Harris: "He was nerdy. He wasn't a nerd, but people knew if you talked to Billy, football was coming up in the conversation. … He was like the football guru."

As a boy in South Carolina, his parents would find him alone in the backyard, breaking down invisible huddles and targeting trees as his receivers.

"He's always had one passion," Chris Cosh said. "He loves football."

At Arundel, Cosh found the game to be a set of X's and O's, surmountable like mathematic equations. The game was team dinners on Thursday nights with all his friends, the taste of victory 24 hours later. Passes and celebrations. Records and glory. Simple.

"Basically, you go in there and Coach [Markiewicz] gives you the football and tells you to go throw it around, have some fun," Cosh said. "It was a great feeling."

And then the game changed.

College struggles

At team sessions his redshirt freshman year at Kansas State, Cosh would look to Collin Klein, a redshirt sophomore at the time who initially hosted Cosh on his official visit.

"Every little thing, he'd write it down. Coach said it, he'd write it down, everything," Cosh said. "I got to see that and I always thought, 'Why is he doing that?' As a young kid, 18, I didn't know anything."

Cosh had picked Kansas State, he said, partly because his dad was Bill Snyder's defensive coordinator at the time. He says he "felt comfortable in a sense."

He'd see Klein, the future Heisman Trophy candidate, race with receivers in sprints. He'd see how upperclassmen powered through the weight room. This was what big-time football looked like, and this was what Cosh had always aspired to since being a boy who plastered his bedroom with posters of his dream schools that ran high-octane offenses.

"I'll be honest, I got humbled at K-State," he said. "You went from being that top dog and then you go to K-State, a big-time program. Everybody's good."

In January 2011, he came home one night to meet James Madison coach Mickey Mathews visiting at his house.

"He was just telling me it would be a good deal," Cosh said. "You know, what any recruiter would tell you. That's how the game goes."

The visit, Cosh said, was enough to fill him with a bright sense of opportunity at JMU.

"I made a rash decision," Cosh says now. "And I regret that. It's my fault."

Out of fall camp, Mathews went with a dual-threat player named Justin Thorpe, who was later suspended after a positive drug test. By then, Cosh was at the bottom of the Dukes' depth chart.

"We had high expectations for Billy," Mathews said. "He just never came to [fruition]. It just for whatever reason never clicked here. And that's about it. Nothing more, nothing less."

From the sidelines, Cosh watched another season pass him by, and a void was again overcoming him. That rush that came only on game days felt somewhere in the distance, somewhere back at Arundel.

Maybe he wasn't good enough, he thought. Maybe he wasn't tough enough. Maybe his dreams were foolish.

"I'm not gonna lie," he said. "Sometimes I thought about quitting."

He turned to his father often. Chris Cosh had taken 11 coaching jobs in 26 years at that point.

"He always told me to keep believing," Billy Cosh said.

His father knew this: "Once you make a choice," he said, "you've got to live with it."

'A rebirth'

Tate Omli had to repeat the name of his next roommate to himself. "Billy Cosh?"

"I'm a lifelong Kansas State fan, so I knew who he was," said Omli, a teammate of Cosh's last season at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan. "I thought, 'Wow, I'm gonna be rooming with Billy Cosh.'"

Butler coach Troy Morrell says players come to him from different backgrounds every year. Many times, a player's ability is at a Division I level, but his grades are not. In many cases, Butler has been a place for players to straighten their paths.

In 2012, Morrell says his team was "in desperate need" of a quarterback.

"He was very eager [to play] and rightfully so," Morrell said of Cosh, who transferred to Butler after one semester at JMU. "This was like a rebirth for him, a restart."

Cosh's lofty plans for himself never allowed him to consider junior college. "I thought, 'Junior college? Who does that?'" he said.

But then he met Omli, a football nut like himself who he'd spar with over football knowledge. They'd go back and forth on which NFL players played where in college, on which coaches coached where.

He met teammates similar to him, many of them striving to redirect themselves to Division I.

"We enjoyed each other's time, and we just wanted to play football," Cosh said. "You kind of just appreciate the game more when you're there."

He was back to himself, rejuvenated, back to spending hours in the film room, being at the center of his huddles again.

"The swagger, [Butler] brought it back," Cosh said. "Just playing again, getting out there, getting hit, being a leader. That's what I loved. It was great to experience it all again."

Cosh completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,856 yards with 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions for an offense that outscored regular-season opponents 523-82. He went 11-1 and led the team to the National Junior College Athletic Association championship game.

"We had a lot of leaders. Billy was one of those leaders and really like a spearhead," Morrell said. "He was instrumental in forming that team chemistry."

Cosh sprained his left anterior cruciate ligament before his team's final three games, and all the way up to the title game, he played through the sting. He couldn't bear the idea of sitting in front of his teammates.

With five seconds remaining before halftime against Iowa Western in the championship, he launched a Hail Mary and was crashed into by a defensive tackle. He felt his knee rip. Butler went on to lose to Iowa Western, 27-7.

His future assistant coaches at Houston were watching from the stands. Surgery and rehabilitation were ahead, but Cosh wasn't thinking of himself out of halftime.

"I just felt like I let those guys down," he said.

In the moments he tried to limp only to fall and in the moments he looked into his teammates' eyes, he was reminded of the game's most fundamental purpose all over again, the part of it that had escaped him in the two years before.

He knew again what made football a game about more than himself.

Still searching

Cosh spent his summer living in Florida with his family, working alongside his physician and his father in the rehab process.

Chris Cosh spent 2012 as defensive coordinator at South Florida before being dismissed with the rest of the staff at the season's end.

There was, Billy Cosh said, too much free time for the two of them this summer. That is, too much time away from football.

"We were both at home, and we're not used to that," he said with a laugh.

Cosh was cleared in July for the start of Houston's camp, which began Aug. 3.

"It's not traditional, the path he's taken to our place," Houston coach Tony Levine said before camp. "He's taken a unique path, and I think it's made him stronger because of it."

Cosh will begin the season as an underdog again. On Friday — near the end of an August that Cosh spent competing against five others for the starting job — Levine tabbed the returning David Piland to open the Cougars' season. Freshman John O'Korn, Levine said, will be Piland's backup in Week 1.

The quarterback competition is yest another challenge, but Chris Cosh — who coached Minnesota's defensive line during Levine's freshman season playing there in 1991 — sees how his son has developed over the years.

"Sometimes you grow and you learn from the good and the bad," Chris Cosh said. "You grow from every place you've been."

Since leaving, there have been times when the lights at Arundel blaze back to Billy Cosh's mind. With his chance at Houston approaching, he says they flicker less.

"You move on and you understand what the process is," he said. "And you get ready for your next chapter."

sboster@baltsun.com

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Previews this week

Monday: State Division III

Tuesday: Morgan State

Wednesday: Towson

Thursday: Navy

Friday: Maryland

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