Show up at the end of a Texas Tech football practice, and you’ll rarely find anyone who leaves the field later than Eric Ward. When most others have gone in, the senior wide receiver finds team manager Robert Smith and stays another 30 or 45 minutes, working on routes, timing and hands while Smith throws him passes.
Ward’s recent drought isn’t because he thought he had it made after back-to-back seasons with more than 80 catches.
His and Smith’s routine remains the same. Smith is from Lake Travis, and a roommate of Tech sophomore quarterback Michael Brewer.
“He’s been staying out there with me for about three years,” Ward said. “I’m taking up his free time. He’s available to do it, so I appreciate him coming out there doing it for me. He comes out there and helps me with the routes and stuff.”
More than likely, Ward will see the extra time invested pay off again soon. He has 192 career receptions and 24 touchdowns, but he’s had a quiet last three games — no more than four catches and mid-30s yardage against Stephen F. Austin and Texas State and no catches at all in the team’s win over TCU.
While juniors Jace Amaro and Bradley Marquez seem to be well on their way to breakout seasons, Ward’s not having the ball thrown his way as much.
“It’s hard for me to explain,” Ward said. “I just run my route as hard as I can. If the ball’s not there, I find other duties to accomplish, such as blocking. If the ball comes to me, that’s good, but if not, I’ve still got a job to do and that’s go block for my teammates and hustle.”
Ward’s dry spell has come on the heels of one his biggest career games. He caught 13 passes for 150 yards in the opener, a 41-23 victory at SMU. That included separate fourth-quarter sequences in which Baker Mayfield connected with him on passes four plays in a row and three plays in a row.
Since then, the freshman quarterback has found it easier to get the ball to Amaro, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound target. And Marquez is emerging as a vertical threat on the side opposite Ward, with touchdown catches in each of the first four games.
“I think part of it’s when you play a young quarterback, sometimes maybe you’re not seeing the field as well,” co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie said. “And then we’ve just got to do a better job involving him in the game plan. He’s playing as hard as anybody out there. Sometimes we could probably try to get the ball going his way a little bit, but we’ve got a lot of good players.”
In the Tech-TCU game, Ward was thrown to twice and failed to catch a pass for the first time since the next-to-last game of the 2010 season. He disputes the implication that it was because third-team All-America cornerback Jason Verrett covered him that night.
“He was on my side the whole game, but I still was open,” Ward said. “I just didn’t get any looks. I ran the routes, I blocked hard and just did my job.”
Last year, Tech had Ward on one side of the field, catching 82 passes for 1,053 yards, and Darrin Moore on the other, catching 92 passes for 1,032 yards. Their 25 TD catches were almost evenly split. But they had far and away more catches than any other receivers.
Having gone into his senior year with two big seasons under his belt, Ward might be more of a game-plan priority for opposing defensive coordinators.
“It’s a lot more man coverage with help over the top; I can say that,” Ward said. “I’ve never seen so much man coverage, but that’s not an issue with me, because in general I go out there, run my routes hard and work to get open.
“As long we’re winning, then what’s the (problem)? At the end of the day, it’s not about your self-accomplishment. It’s about the team goal. That’s what I’m in it for, for the team goal.”
More than once, Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury has faulted himself for the ball not going Ward’s way more. As the split end in Tech’s offense, Ward is nearly always lined up wide left, although this year he’s also been in the right slot a few times in some games.
Kingsbury was asked this week if Mayfield is better at throwing certain routes, ones that might favor other receivers.
“That’s something we’re still figuring out,” Kingsbury said. “I don’t know if Baker knows that yet. He hasn’t been in our offense very long. We’re kind of all growing as a unit. He’s targeted those other guys more at times, but you look at the first game — he threw it to (Ward) 13 times. So I don’t think that has too much to do with it.”
Meanwhile, as he waits for more throws to come his way, Ward will keep working on in practice with Mayfield and Davis Webb and after practice with Smith.
He said he doesn’t want to keep the young QBs from taking care of their business off the field.
“Most of them have to go to tutoring and they have other things to do — go get their work done and stuff like that — so I don’t bother them as much as I do Robert,” Ward said. “Robert’s the same age as me, and we have some of the same responsibilities because we’re both in grad school.
“I just ask Robert, can he come out there and help me every day? He enjoys it as much as I do.”
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