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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Football

Quarterback’s maturity pilots Cougars to success


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Quarterback Greg Ward Jr.’s 398 passing yards against UConn was a career-high for the senior. | Ajani Stewart/The Cougar

Senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has progressed in nearly every facet of his game in his third year as the Cougars’ signal caller.

After leading his team to a 5-0 start for the second consecutive season, Ward’s stellar play has thrust him into the Heisman Trophy conversation.

“On the defensive side we call him ‘Houdini,’” Sophomore cornerback Garrett Davis said. “He will just make a play happen out of nowhere.”

Wiser player

In the four games he has started this season, Ward has racked up 1,325 passing yards and eight passing touchdowns — all while throwing only two interceptions. Ward has the seventh-best completion percentage in the nation at 70.7 percent and is averaging 331.2 passing yards per game.

On the ground, Ward has gained 178 yards this season and amassed another five touchdowns.

“He’s much more patient in the pocket,” Head coach Tom Herman said. “That comes from great coaching over the course of 20 months that really taught him the offense. He’s feeling much more comfortable. He’s growing up before our eyes as a passer.”

Although Ward is posting impressive numbers, many parts of his game cannot be quantified. The Tyler native’s improved decision-making skill is on display in 2016.

Many times, Ward has been unable to find an open receiver. He’s had to find a small hole between a couple of defensive linemen to gain yards with his feet.

His numbers also don’t show how many times he has stayed in that collapsed pocket — despite his size — and delivered a strike to one of his receivers while taking a hit.

“Really good throwing quarterbacks get hit as they throw — that’s the nature of the position,” Herman said. “Last year, you would have seen him come off of that read or receiver and scramble around. He’s doing a great job of standing in there.”

In 2015, Ward was quick to give up on pass plays under pressure. With more patience and growth since last season, he is taking his time and being more of a true quarterback.

Additionally, the typically soft-spoken Ward is becoming more of a vocal and emotional leader on and off the field.

“His fire and energy is very palpable this season and I look forward to getting back to work with him again,” Herman said. “He’s playing with a tremendous amount of confidence.”

All eyes on him

Coaches from other teams are also paying attention to Ward.

University of Connecticut Huskies’ head coach, Bob Diaco, had nothing but praise for Ward after the game on Sept. 29. Diaco called him an “absolute weapon” and admitted difficulty in dealing with Ward’s dual-threat abilities.

Ward earned the respect of his peers with his on field performance and ability to fight through pain.

All season, he has fought through a lingering shoulder injury sustained in the opener against the University of Oklahoma Sooners. The injury kept him out of the game against Lamar University Cardinals, but five days later he still lead the Cougars to win the Cincinnati Bearcats.

“He’s an aggressive guy and he’s going to hit,” Herman said. “That’s why it’s important for him to be 185 pounds, be as strong as he is and have the offseason that he did.”

Despite his achievements, Ward remains humble. Even though national media keep mentioning his name for college football’s most prestigious award, he remains focused on his team’s goals.

It’s the mentality that could lead the Cougars to a conference championship — even a spot in the College Football Playoff.

“I don’t think about that at all,” Ward said. “I just think about doing my job for my team and just doing what I can to make sure we get the win.”

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