Cougars’ Ward develops into little engine that could
Greg Ward Jr. was the third-ranked quarterback in Texas as a senior at John Tyler High. But all the major recruiting services rated the youngster as only a three-star recruit, and most of the Power Five conference schools wanted him as an athlete.
Ward chose Houston because he wanted a chance to play quarterback. As a true freshman for the Cougars, Ward served as a backup quarterback but got into games as a wide receiver and punt returner.
It appeared that would be the future for Ward when he became a starting wide receiver as a sophomore. But with the offense struggling five games into the season, thencoach Tony Levine put the team’s best athlete under center.
Ward responded by throwing for 2,010 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushing for an additional 573 yards and six scores in eight games as the starting quarterback.
Levine was fired after the 2014 season and replaced by Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who re-evaluated every returning player. Major Applewhite, hired as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, watched tape of Ward playing in the 2014 Armed Forces Bowl and saw some good and bad.
“When we first met, the first thing I told Greg was that he was one heck of a competitor. I saw that he loved to compete,” Applewhite said. “I then told Greg that we had to do two things. First, we have to eliminate disaster — the 15-yard sacks and silly turnovers. Second, we needed to make him into a credible passer. Because when that happens, it means teams have to cover receivers downfield, and that opens up lanes for the quarterback to run.”
Ward went through a significant growing process as a junior as he learned to play the position at the higher level demanded by Herman and Applewhite. Ward, 5 feet 11, 190 pounds, was far from a polished player, but he was exciting — accounting for almost 4,000 yards of total offense (2,828 passing, 1,108 rushing) and 38 touchdowns (17 passing, 21 rushing).
On Saturday, Ward and the No. 6 Cougars Power Five conference schools undervalued quarterback Greg Ward Jr. because of his size. (5-0) will test his growth as they face Navy (3-1) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
“Greg came a long way last season in terms of understanding protections and routes,” Applewhite said. “So the new challenge going into this season was: Now that you know the routes and understand what they’re doing, let’s get to the why of it. Why are we calling this play?”
Mastering the offense would enable Ward to become a more effective passer, Applewhite said.
“We wanted Greg to be more of an anticipator and pull the trigger sooner. Instead of throwing the ball to receivers that are high school open, he could complete passes into tighter windows,” Applewhite said.
A key element in Ward’s education involved having the patience to let pass plays develop as opposed to tucking the ball and scrambling.
“We went back and watched all the times from last year when he left the pocket early and were just honest about the situation,” Applewhite said.
Evidence that Ward has made great strides in that department came last week against Connecticut. Ward completed 32 of 38 passes for 389 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 65 yards and two scores. But two plays stood out for Applewhite.
“Two of those touchdown passes came after Greg got hit while delivering the ball,” Applewhite said. “Just standing in there, knowing he was going to get hit, Greg was willing to wait for the play to develop and the receiver to come open.”
Now Oklahoma, Texas and several other Big 12 Conference schools are wishing they had not discounted Ward as a quarterback because of his size. Herman credits his offensive coordinator for Ward’s development.
“Major Applewhite has really turned him into a quarterback who just happens to be athletic rather than an athlete who just takes snaps behind center,” Herman said. Saturday, 3 p.m. TV: CBS Sports Network Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: Houston by 17