Greg Ward and the University of Houston are a dominant combination.
Linell Bonner has turned into a game-changing weapon for the University of Houston.
Greg Ward Jr. doesn’t have Lamar Jackson’s crazy touchdown numbers. He’s not being called superhuman, and no one is comparing him to Cam Newton. Fans of opposing teams aren’t lining up to pay homage and seek his autograph. He’s not the projected No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, a la Deshaun Watson, or anything even close to that. Heck, ESPN analyst Danny Kanell infamously only rather recently learned his name. He is somehow a Heisman Trophy candidate and still immensely disrespected.
But Ward is still coming. He’s still undefeated. And he’s still unbowed.
That’s something The Legend of Lamar Jackson can no longer say. After that scintillating dual-threat quarterback showdown in Death Valley left Jackson with at least a flesh wound, the rest of the college football world would be wise to not forget the country’s other dual-threat assassin. Of course, ABC’s lead college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit already did, saying repeatedly on the air Saturday night that Louisville had an easy schedule the rest of the way and should have little trouble winning the rest of its regular-season games to remain firmly in playoff contention with only one loss.
Oh, Kirk. There’s the little matter of Louisville’s November 17th date with No. 6 Houston — only, the most anticipated college football game to be held in the Bayou City in arguably a decade.
Somehow, it’s still easy for national voices to dismiss (or outright forget), the University of Houston and Greg Ward Jr. even when they’re on ESPN, blowing out UConn 42-14 in a Thursday night game. Ward and UH coach Tom Herman thrive on this sort of thing. Houston’s leaders turn the slights into more fuel — and ratchet up the intensity even more. Herbstreit’s on-air partner Chris Fowler eventually reminded him of the fact that No. 6 Houston, now ranked one spot ahead of Louisville, is on the Cardinals’ schedule. Herbstreit then tried to backtrack and correct himself.
He’d clearly forgotten, though. Do you think he’d ever forget Alabama? Or even Tennessee?
There is no taking back such a slight. It is becoming more and more clear that Houston’s destined to be dismissed — unless it turns 5-0 into 6-0 against Navy Saturday, eventually gets to 13-0 and crashes the College Football Playoff. One gets the sense that Ward is fine with being overlooked for now. He knows his moment is coming.
Sure, Ward’s fallen down the list of Heisman contenders in many of the current mocks, trailing Jackson and Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett (a predictable Herbstreit favorite) on almost every list, and even Watson now on some. But this now self-assured 21-year-old has no interest in campaigning. Or even talking about the famous trophy.
In fact, one gets the idea that Ward’s even urged his teammates to not pump up his Heisman credentials. The glowing teammate endorsement is a college football tradition that goes back to at least the days when Doc Blanchard was taking the hulking trophy home for Army. Ward’s not even down with that type of praise, though.
When wideout Linell Bonner and linebacker D’Juan Hines are asked about Ward’s Heisman credentials, both demur. “No comment,” Bonner says. “I’m going to plead the Fifth,” Hines shoots back. Sitting right next to them, Ward gets obviously excited and pleased by his teammates’ non answers. “My boys, my boys,” the quarterback beams.
Any media consultant who tries to convince Ward that he needs to sell himself is fighting a losing battle. That’s like trying to tell a Kardashian that she needs to retreat from the spotlight.
Ward Jr. may prefer that no one talks about him off the field, but when he’s on it there is no hiding the warrior mentality that Herman’s helped bring out of the formally quiet quarterback. He’s not not just putting up crazy stats — 32 of 38 passing for 389 yards and three touchdowns, and another 75 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against a dazed UConn defense. He’s putting up crazy stats and letting the other team know they cannot stop him if they get in his face.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Ward sometimes takes a frightening amount of physical punishment in Houston’s offensive system. But he keeps popping back up (so far) — and pity the linebacker who tries to keep him down. When UConn’s Junior Joseph stepped over Ward and didn’t move, he suddenly had a rock-hard package of fury in his face, letting him know this wouldn’t be tolerated.
“I was just trying to get up,” Ward says. “And he didn’t let me up.”
So Ward handled it. “I frigging love it,” Herman says. “Greg’s a competitive dude. One of the most competitive dudes I’ve been around throughout my career.”
Competitive dudes love to be slighted. They feed off that stuff. Guys like J.J. Watt, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady … they’re all the same. Herman and Ward belong in that type of crazy competitive category, too.
They love that Herbstreit completely overlooked them. The University of Houston is somehow both in the Top 10 and still disrespected. That’s a neat trick — and if you didn’t know better, you’d swear Herman somehow orchestrated it himself. All this disrespect certainly helps keep his team on edge when it’s playing dangerous underdog opponents such as Navy.
The No. 6 team in America still has something to prove every time it steps on the field. Ward is thriving on it — and using the fuel to make those around him better.
Take Linnell Bonner. He went into UH’s summer practices not even certain he’d have a starting job. He won one — and hasn’t stopped catching the ball since. The 6-foot, 200-pounder does not possess great speed. But UConn could not stay with him. Bonner ripped more holes in the Huskies’ defensive gameplan than there are in the plot of a Kiefer Sutherland TV series.
Then again, it’s fair to wonder if UConn even had a defensive gameplan, considering how much cushion Houston’s receivers found themselves given, route after route. Bonner set career highs in receptions and yards in a game by halftime, racking up nine catches for 124 yards in the first 30 minutes of action. Then he added an even more impressive touchdown catch in the second half, reaching out in the corner of the end zone and somehow pulling in a pass — with one hand — that seemed headed out of bounds..
“That’s my favorite NFL receiver,” Bonner says when asked if that was his DeAndre Hopkins’ catch. “I really look up to him.”
Ward’s leadership and belief help push guys like Bonner to new heights. It’s almost sneakily building UH into a better and better team as Louisville and Lamar Jackson get all the hype. Keep talking Kirk Herbstreit, keep dismissing, keeping forgetting about that little program in the Bayou City. Ward and The Coogs are still coming,