Cougars’ Ward de­vel­ops into lit­tle en­gine that could

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Bill Wag­ner

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

CHRIS COVATTA/GETTY IM­AGES

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