Texas Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said before spring practice that sophomore safety Keenon Ward needed to finish better on tackles and show more confidence at the point of attack.
Ward apparently took the message to heart.
Co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith said Ward has stood out this spring, not just among the candidates for an open safety spot, but on the defense in general.
“Keenon Ward, I think out of all the guys on defense all spring, is flashing,” Smith said, widening his eyes for emphasis. “His thing coming in was needing to get toughened up and get physical and he’s doing that. He’s coming out popping people.”
Given the area in which coaches wanted Ward to show improvement, it was noteworthy that he delivered the biggest hit during the team’s intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at Midland. Late in the game, Ward blasted slot receiver Zach Austin. Austin held on to the football for a 10-yard gain, but Ward’s hit elicited oohs and aahs from the crowd.
“And just every day in practice, doing tackle circuit every day before we start individuals, Keenon is going out there with a chip on his shoulder,” Smith said. “He’s put 5 or 10 pounds on this offseason and is just playing physical and violent.
“That’s what we need on defense is guys like him that set the tone every day in practice, and he’s been doing that.”
Ward started three games last year and made 32 tackles. Wallerstedt said the former Snyder star graded high in the Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State, a game in which he had four tackles and a pass breakup.
That Ward is stepping up now could be important to his future. Tech is looking to fill free safety after the departure of 2013 senior Tre Porter, who started 35 games. The possibilities include Ward, senior Dorian Crawford, junior-college transfer Josh Keys and redshirt freshman Jalen Barnes.
A high-ankle sprain in August spoiled Crawford’s 2013, his first season at Tech. Keys is learning the defense for the first time this spring, and Ward has Big 12 game experience on Barnes, though Tech coaches are high on all four players.
If Ward can seize the opportunity as a sophomore, it’ll make him harder to beat out down the road.