First-year Houston coach Tom Herman was intrigued last winter when he watched quarterback Greg Ward Jr. run during his team's off-season strength and conditioning drills.
Herman liked Ward's explosive burst. He also thought that Ward had a quick first step and was fast at full speed.
Yet Herman was unsure about Ward's passing, even though the former wide receiver threw for 2,010 yards last year while starting eight games under center for the Cougars after switching positions. That's because Herman watched little if any video of his new team from last season.
He did so to ensure that he wouldn't have any preconceived notions about his new players.
"I didn't know he could throw it a lick," Herman tells The Inside Read with a laugh.
But opposing defenses aren't laughing. Ward has blossomed into perhaps college football's best pure dual-threat quarterback this season for No. 16 Houston (9–0, 5–0 AAC).
Entering Saturday's pivotal home game against 25th-ranked Memphis (8–1, 4–1), the Cougars are in control of their own destiny to be the Group of Five's lone automatic berth in one of the six New Year's Day bowls. Ward has led the way, completing 70.4% of his passes for 2,116 yards and 13 touchdowns with four interceptions.
The 5' 11", 185-pound junior is second in the FBS in rushing touchdowns (16) and first among quarterbacks in rushing yards, with 829 on 138 carries. He's also become a legitimate dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
"He's the gas that makes our engine go," Herman says. "There's no doubt about that. As he goes, we go."
Ward's success in Herman's high-scoring, power-spread offense has helped to make the 40-year-old former Ohio State offensive coordinator one of college football's hottest coaching prospects for Power 5 jobs. Ward is Herman's latest star dual-threat quarterback, following in the footsteps of the Buckeyes' Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, all of whom Herman worked with in Columbus the previous three seasons.
"He would fit in just fine with those guys, I can tell you that," Herman says of Ward. "He wouldn't be out of place."
Herman calls Ward "a poor man's Braxton Miller." It's a compliment because few players have the size and speed of the 6' 2", 215-pound quarterback turned wide receiver, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds and has a cannon arm.
"He's right there," Herman says of Ward.
But it wasn't until Houston's first spring practice in March that Herman became fully aware of how good Ward could be. Once Herman saw Ward throw, he was impressed by how the ball came out of his quarterback's hand.
"I knew then we had a little bit there to work with," Herman says.
Yet Ward was still raw as a signal-caller, and with good reason. As a freshman in 2013, the native of Tyler, Texas, played as a backup quarterback, but also saw time at wide receiver and punt returner.
Last year, Ward started the first five games at receiver, catching 15 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown. But after the Cougars got off to a disappointing 2–3 start, he replaced former starting quarterback John O'Korn for the rest of the season.
Houston lost just twice in Ward's eight starts, but the change was not enough to save the job of coach Tony Levine, who was fired at the conclusion of the regular season. It was during Houston's miraculous 35–34 comeback victory over Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl that Ward's electrifying potential as a signal-caller shone brightest.
In that triumph, Ward rallied the Cougars from a 25-point fourth-quarter deficit, the largest ever in a bowl game that didn't go to overtime. He threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns, and also rushed for 92 yards on 14 carries.
Herman got his hands on Ward less than two weeks later, and the coach was shocked by what he discovered.
"He had no idea what it takes to be a college quarterback," Herman says. "No disrespect to the previous coaching staff, but he hadn't had time to develop. He was just trying to keep his head above water and go make a few first downs every Saturday."
Unsure about Ward, Herman had brought in Adam Schulz—a redshirt senior transfer from Utah—shortly after being hired. Schulz had started three games for the Utes in 2013.
Schulz had a much better understanding of Houston's passing game, but wasn't nearly as dynamic as Ward.
"There was definitely a continual weighing of, Does Greg's athletic and playmaking abilities outweigh his deficiencies?" Herman says.
Herman decided that they did, and tailored his offense to Ward. By the end of preseason camp, Herman felt that Ward was only slightly behind Schulz as a passer.
Ward's development was due to his eagerness to learn. He became a fixture in the coaches' offices, where he spent countless hours with Herman and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Major Applewhite.
"He wanted to be a sponge," Herman says of Ward.
Herman and Applewhite have hardly tinkered with Ward's throwing motion, but have worked with him extensively on his footwork.
"Uberathletes, when they [play quarterback], their feet are their best friends and worst enemies," Herman says. "They get them out of so much trouble, but they also breed such bad habits because their feet are kind of all over the place because they're so quick."
Ward has also had to learn the mental aspects of being a quarterback.
"He'd never even checked a protection in his life," Herman says. "In last year's system, there were no hot routes. The center and running back kind of fixed everything and if they didn't, it was a run for your life kind of deal."
Now, Ward is in charge. He can slide offensive protections and adjust his receivers' routes based on what he sees.
He's still working on his timing, especially when it comes to staying in the pocket for an extra second to find an open receiver rather than simply taking off running.
"He's light years ahead of where he was," Herman says, "but he's still barely scratching the surface in terms of anticipating and reading defenses."
Along the way, Herman and Ward have become closer. Initially, Ward didn't tell Herman for the first few months that he had a young daughter named Chloë.
Ward was afraid that Herman would be judgmental, only to find out that three of Herman's quarterbacks at Ohio State also had children (Jones, Miller and Kenny Guiton).
"That kind of helped him feel a little bit more at ease with me," Herman says. "We can talk about things other than football, like being a dad. We've bonded on that."
Herman and Ward also feed off their respective burning competitive natures. That's why Herman tells the mild-mannered Ward that he wants him to be more vocal.
Herman often needles Ward about his reticence when the quarterback is within earshot.
"Is the quarterback out here yet?" Herman asks. "I haven't heard him all practice. Is he practicing today?"
Herman also harps on Ward about the need for him to gain weight, which has been a struggle because of his fast metabolism. Prior to the season, Herman told Ward he would not be the team's starting quarterback if he reported to preseason camp weighing less than 180 pounds.
Ward arrived a pound over that weight, but Herman wants him to be in the high 180s or low 190s next season.
"That's if he wants to survive another season playing in this offense," Herman says.
And as well as Ward has played this season, he could be even better next year. With each snap he takes, the more he improves according to Herman.
"I swear he's just scratching the surface," Herman says. "With another year, I think next year he can set the world on fire. As if he's not already."
That should be even more frightening to opposing defenses considering that Ward is already plenty motivated. After his touchdown passes he always finds the man who questioned whether he could throw at all—Herman.
"He gives me one of those looks," Herman says with a laugh. "It's half I'm in the zone, I'm fired up, I'm excited. The other half is, I told you so."
After a rocky transition, Kenny Hill impresses his new coaches
When former Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill was attending Fort Worth-area Tarrant County College last spring, he and TCU coach Gary Patterson made a deal.
Patterson said that he would consider taking Hill as a transfer if he would attend the Horned Frogs' spring practices so that Patterson and the rest of his coaching staff could get to know him. Hill, who had been plagued by off-the-field problems during his two seasons in College Station, showed up and allayed everyone's concerns.
"He's awesome," Patterson tells The Inside Read. "He's just been purely awesome."
The 6' 1", 215-pound Hill was also awesome in his first start at Texas A&M last year, when he threw for 511 yards and three touchdowns in a season-opening 52–28 road romp over South Carolina. His passing yardage broke the Aggies' single-game record (464) set by his predecessor, Johnny Manziel.
Hill went on to start seven more games last season—passing for 2,649 yards and 23 touchdowns, with eight interceptions—before he was suspended for two games for a violation of team rules. He never played another down for A&M.
Hill enrolled at TCU last summer and is redshirting this season, meaning he has two years of eligibility left. Patterson refers to his transfer quarterback simply as Kenny, not "Kenny Trill," the nickname Hill gave himself after the South Carolina win last season.
"He's been great," Patterson says. "He's been unbelievable as our scout team quarterback."
In that role, Hill has been participating in offensive meetings and learning the Horned Frogs' high-powered spread offense. He'll compete next year with redshirt freshmen Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein to succeed senior quarterback Trevone Boykin.
But in the meantime, Hill has impressed against TCU's defense in practices, according to Patterson.
"He does a great job throwing verticals against us on the scout team," Patterson says. "He can move around obviously. He's a good athlete."
if Hill can stay on the straight and narrow off the field, Patterson just might have found himself a great deal.
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