When was the last time you saw a successful 5-11, 178-pound quarterback? Greg Ward Jr. currently has the Houston Cougars undefeated, and sits in the top five of PFF’s college quarterback grades at this point in the season.
Ward is one of the most unique players in the nation, and he has been more than just a wide out playing quarterback for Houston this season — he projects to be a dynamic playmaker at any level.
Let’s take a look at what Ward can do for Houston over the rest of the season, and where his NFL future may ultimately lie.
This is the most obvious weapon Ward has in his arsenal. He currently owns the highest rushing grade of any quarterback in the nation by some considerable distance. In fact he has double the grade of all but six other quarterbacks. He already has 16 rushing touchdowns this season and is a clear weapon to take it to the house any time he breaks the pocket and takes off, whether by design or improvisation.
Speed is the hallmark of his game. A tiny breakdown in positioning and a hesitation on defense and he can punish you for a huge gain. Take a look at the play below against Texas State from Week 4. Houston runs the pistol a lot and it allows them to have a strong running game, employ the option, but also just drop Ward back to pass. Even on passing plays though he is a threat to scramble in an instant which stresses a defense even more because any form of man coverage involves defenders turning their back on him and opening up the field.
Here Texas State get early pressure and all that does is ignite Ward who tears out of the pocket and into the secondary in a heartbeat, turning it into a big play before the Bobcats have any idea what’s happened.
But he can do the same thing on designed run plays, especially the read option. Below is an example against UCF a week ago. You can see the defensive end that Houston has optioned crashing down onto the run, so Ward pulls the ball, takes off and takes it 20 yards before being forced out of bounds.
Of course you can also see the holding penalty develop off the left side of the line that ultimately brings the play back, but the point is simply that Ward can instantly gain huge yardage if given any space at all to play with as a runner. He isn't alone in being an impressive running threat at quarterback — the college landscape is full of them, far more than the NFL is — but even in those terms he is something special with the ball in his hands.
What makes Ward an impressive quarterback this season isn’t just that he is such a devastating weapon with the ball in his hands — he can make the occasional big passing play as well, keeping him viable as the leader of the offense. He has legitimate passing talent and the ability to make all the throws. He has an impressive arm and the ability to deliver the ball accurately and with velocity, but also shows an impressive aptitude to vary his passes and throw with touch and arc when necessary.
Take this seam pass against SMU. Ward has come late to his TE and knows there is a coverage defender underneath him. It would be easy to just rifle this pass down the gap and hope it makes it through, but he knows the smarter play is to put a bit of air on the ball and clear the linebackers, leading his receiver to space and giving him the chance of YAC. That’s exactly what he does and it ends up a far bigger play because of it. It seems simple, but is a nice example of a little thing making the play seem easier than it was.
How about this pass below against Vanderbilt?
Down in the red zone Ward hits his slot receiver DeMarcus Ayers on a corner route with absolute perfect precision against pretty good coverage on the play. This play goes off exactly as it’s drawn up on the chalk board, but Ward needs to drop this into a bucket right over the defensive back and couldn’t have placed it in a better location if he’d walked up and handed it to him.
This is elite, high-level accuracy that Ward shows on a regular basis and it’s backed up by the stats. He has an accuracy percentage (adjusted for dropped passes) of 78.7 this season — good for top 10 in the entire FBS.
Ward isn’t just a gimmick athlete playing quarterback, but rather one of the best quarterbacks in college football, and good enough to have led the Houston Cougars to an undefeated record after eight games. Vanderbilt may have only been 3-4 when they played this week, but they are an SEC team and Houston hung 34 points on them despite rainy conditions — not exactly conducive to well-executed offense.
In two weeks time, Memphis will provide the sternest test of their season, but there is a very real chance Ward can get this team to win out and finish the season undefeated.
Outlook as an NFL prospect
There may be no player that fascinates me more in college football than Ward. He is clearly a devastating athlete, but his arm talent and abilities as a passer are too impressive to dismiss outright. Nevertheless, no team is going to draft a quarterback of his dimensions to play that position at the next level. Even Russell Wilson, a more accomplished passer, slipped to the third round because of his size, and he has 30 pounds on Ward.
I’m not fond of forcing player comparisons if none leap to mind, but the guy Ward keeps reminding me of is Antwaan Randle El, who became a great slot receiver and return man for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The two players share similar dimensions, and like Ward, Randle El played his college ball primarily at quarterback. He was never going to be given an opportunity to play that spot in the NFL, but his arm and throwing ability was good enough that the Steelers were inclined to use him on trick plays throughout his career, something that would be the least Ward’s passing talents would deserve.
Whatever he ends up being at the next level, Greg Ward Jr is a hell of a playmaker, and a guy who deserves legitimate Heisman hype right now.