HOUSTON — Greg Ward Jr. gave Houston one of the best seasons for a quarterback at the school. No small accomplishment considering the Cougars' history of record-breaking passers.
Now coach Tom Herman needs more from Ward. Not necessarily more touchdowns or yards. If the Cougars are going to reach the lofty expectations this season that follow last year's 13-1 breakthrough, Herman needs a few forceful leaders to emerge — with Ward among them."Greg is, he's a really, really hard worker. He's a tremendous talent. But credit to his family, he was raised extremely humble. Extremely soft spoken, kind of one of those be-seen-and-not-heard deals," Herman said. "Unfortunately, at a certain point humility's great, but dude you've got to take charge of this team. You're the quarterback, man. He's getting there. Much better this spring than ever before."
"It's becoming natural," Ward said. "I'm taking my job seriously, being more vocal and helping the team."
In Herman's first season, he inherited not only some impressive talent but a group of seniors, such as linebacker Elandon Roberts and running back Kenneth Farrow, who embraced the new staff's message and made sure teammates fell in line.
Ward? He was just trying to win a starting job.
"Last year, it was just 'I've got to worry about myself because I'm trying to learn this new offense, trying to figure out my lot in life and try not to screw this damn thing up,'" Herman said of Ward. "Now he's got a better understanding of the offense which allows him to play a lot more confidently and be that leader that we need him to be because he's got his house in much better order."
Like any good quarterback, Ward went to work studying film of the stars, how they interact with teammates, coaches and handle postgame interviews.
"Cam Newton, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson," Ward said. "How they motivated their team whenever adversity strikes or motivated their team whenever they were winning."
Ward came to Houston as an undersized (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) dual-threat quarterback. As another freshman quarterback, John O'Korn, went on to have a huge season in 2013, Ward was used as a receiver.
That was the plan in 2014, but when O'Korn struggled, Ward got his chance. He passed for 2,010 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and ran for 573 yards and six scores.
In 2015, in came Herman, the quarterback whisperer who helped Ohio State win a national title with a third-stringer, and out went O'Korn, who transferred to Michigan.
Ward's skills and Herman's offense were a perfect match. Ward passed for 2,828 yards and 21 touchdowns, with only six interceptions. He ran for 1,108 yards and a school-record 21 touchdowns, including 147 yards and two scores in a 24-13 victory against Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship.
"He was the difference for them," Owls coach Matt Rhule said. "In that game, he made two or three runs where we had a defender right there in a position to tackle him and he just made a guy miss and made a big play."
In 2014, Ward used his arm to cut up Temple's defense, going 29-for-33 for 268 yards in a 31-10 victory.
"If you try to overload and take away the run he can certainly make all the throws and they have a well-put-together passing game for him," Rhule said.
Houston topped off last season with a 38-24 victory in the Peach Bowl against Florida State and a No. 8 finish in the AP Top 25.
Houston has a long and illustrious history of star quarterbacks, lighting up scoreboards and rewriting record books.
Andre Ware won the Heisman Trophy directing the Run-and-Shoot in 1989. David Klingler followed Ware and also became a first-round NFL draft pick. Case Keenum left Houston in 2011 as the NCAA's career leader in passing yards and touchdown passes.
Now it's Ward, a Heisman contender playing for a team with dreams of becoming the first outside the Power Five conferences to reach the College Football Playoff. The hype might not last long. The Cougars open the season against Oklahoma at NRG Stadium. Beat the Sooners and things get very interesting for Ward, Herman and the Cougars.
"There's no limit," Ward said, "to what we as a team can do."