Switching positions before the NFL draft has renewed Greg Ward Jr.’s search for respect
Amid the giddy thicket of sweat and elation in the winning locker room, Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. stood in front of 100 of his teammates back on Sept. 3. He’d just sashayed through a hapless Oklahoma defense to lead the Cougars to a 33–23 upset of the No. 3 Sooners. When he completed his postgame address to the team, his Cougar teammates serenaded him with mocking chants: “Ga-ry! Ga-ry! Ga-ry!”
Earlier that week, ESPN’s Danny Kanell had flubbed Ward’s first name on national television. Houston coach Tom Herman used the slight as a savvy way to cast the Cougars as disrespected underdogs. And after that axis-shifting upset that catapulted Houston into the top 10, Ward needed no further introduction to college football fans.
A few months after making cameos on Heisman Trophy watch lists, Ward is seeking a new introduction to the football world. Ward has undergone the humbling transition from college star quarterback to NFL-hopeful wide receiver. He’s waiting for his name to be called at the NFL draft later this week, as teams try to decipher whether his elite burst and competitiveness can translate to success at a new position in the pros.
There are endless cases of college quarterbacks transitioning to productive NFL players elsewhere on the field. The list spans generations, from Gene Washington to Antwaan Randle El to Julian Edelman. But that transition also comes with an identity change for quarterbacks used to dictating the energy, personality and ethos of a locker room. Ward knew prior to his senior year that a position change would be inevitable in order to secure a professional career. “Honestly, I knew I was going to have to change positions,” he says. “I wasn’t a prototypical quarterback in terms of size.”
Those who’ve coached Ward have an unwavering belief in his ability to forge an NFL career. He’s 5' 10″, 185 pounds and flashed a rare lateral quickness in college that coaches compared to players like former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who has spent the last four years as a reserve running back with the Jaguars but is currently a free agent. Part of Ward’s appeal to NFL front offices is that he offers an array of services, as he can be a receiver, punt returner and an emergency quarterback.
Where Ward will end up is a mystery: Some scouts predict he won’t be drafted; others seem him as a potential late-round pick. The most optimistic say he could be slotted between the fifth and seventh rounds, a project with a decorated resume and unique skill set. NFL personnel are enamored by his speed, but questions about his hands, route-running and lack of experience will inevitably arise.
Ward has spent a majority of the past few months in the Dallas area training with Patrick Crayton. Veteran agent Scott Casterline connected Ward to the former Cowboys receiver, who himself switched from quarterback to receiver upon arriving in the NFL. Crayton has hammered home the nuances of smoother route running and can already sense that Ward’s knowledge of defenses gives him the innate knack of being able to get open. “He wants to keep learning, and he’s always asking questions,” says Crayton. “He’ll make it just because of his hunger, he just wants to keep working.”
For as much as Ward impressed with his arm and athleticism at Houston, his coaches raved about his intangibles. Ward played through an ankle injury most of last season, one that didn’t fully clear up until three weeks ago. He ran his 40-yard dash in the high 4.4s at Houston’s pro day, but the unwavering belief by his coaches that he’ll be able to carve out an NFL career goes deeper than that.
“He’s a really mentally tough dude who is motivated by reasons higher than himself,” says Texas coach Tom Herman, who coached Ward at Houston. “He has his daughter motivating him, and the guy has met every challenge that’s been put in front of him. He’s accepted and worked his tail off to overcome it.”
Herman acknowledged that there will be a learning curve for Ward in the NFL. But he said if teams are impressed by Ward’s ability, production and intangibles, there should be motivation for an organization to develop him. Herman says that Ward’s first step and acceleration are “really, really elite” traits that have positional crossover appeal once they’re honed. “I never understood that in that league,” Herman says. “Coach him how to play receiver. If he’s got the tangibles and intangibles you’re looking for, coach him.”
Houston head coach Major Applewhite, who served as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator and position coach before replacing Herman this winter, pointed to Ward’s body control, one-step cut ability and knack for not allowing defenders to get a clean hit on him as traits that will translate to the next level. Applewhite mentioned that a stint on the practice squad may be necessary for Ward to become fluent in a new role, but he’s seen Ward win too much and overcome too many doubters to project any pessimism. “He’s got a rare competitiveness,” says Applewhite. “You tell him he can’t do something and he goes out and does it. As soon as you start to call out Greg Ward Jr., he’ll prove you wrong.”
Far from the sold-out crowds and national acclaim, Ward has started over in hopes of reintroducing himself to the football world. “I’m thankful for even being in this process,” he says. “This is something that I’ve dreamed about. All I’m doing is working and not worrying.”
Ward is starting over again, looking for another forum to make sure everyone knows his name. All he’s looking for is a chance. “I just hope,” he says, “I go.”