Keenon Ward and J.J. Gaines spent a chunk of their Sunday afternoon sitting a few feet apart, taking questions from the media, not unlike this fall when they’ll be side by side in the Texas Tech secondary.
Symbolically, they couldn’t have been farther apart in January. Gaines couldn’t wait to get back to playing safety after an injury, and Ward couldn’t talk his way out of it.
Even after a stellar performance in the Holiday Bowl, the powerfully built sophomore from Snyder tried.
“I’d gone home,” Ward said, “and when you go home, people are like, ‘Hey, I miss you with the ball. I miss seeing you do this and that.’ It kind of got to me.
“I talked to coach and was like, ‘Hey, defense isn’t what I want to do.’”
But defense was what the Red Raiders needed him to do.
Ward, a star dual-threat quarterback who never played defense in high school, lobbied for a switch to inside receiver, the position for which Tech recruited him.
“We talked, I told (Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury) I was going to stick it out, and that’s where it ended,” Ward said. “Once he told me I couldn’t, I decided to suck it up, because Tech’s the only place I really want to be. I don’t want to leave. I never will, so I sucked it up and now I regret wanting to switch.”
Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said Ward, one of the team’s fastest players, needed to be a better tackler. So during an impressive month of spring practice, the 5-foot-9, 199-pound Ward delivered jarring hits and solidified a starting job at free safety.
Ward said he lodged his plea to move just a week or two after he’d made seven tackles and graded high in Tech’s Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State.
“(Safeties coach) Trey Haverty and I had to sit there and basically say, ‘Hey, give us the spring to give us a chance,’” Wallerstedt said. “I think he was maybe one foot in last year.
“I think he’s bought in all the way. He had a really good bowl game. I think that helped the cause, just like it did our program, and then he had a really big spring. If you had to name a defensive MVP, he would be a guy that would surface in every-day talks, so I’m anxious to see him progress.”
Itching to return
J.J. Gaines can’t relate to Keenon Ward’s wishes to be back on offense. Gaines, too, was the man for his high school team, in his case at Irving Nimitz. He, too, played quarterback and always had the ball in his hands.
He gave up that desire even before he got to Tech.
“My last play of high school, I fumbled the ball,” Gaines said, grinning. “Ever since then, I wanted to play defense.”
And a bang-up job he was doing at it in his first year as a Tech starter.
If Tech had to name a most promising young defensive player after five games last season, Gaines would have been high on the list. Then on the first defensive snap of game six, he suffered a chipped bone in his left shoulder.
That put a quick end to a promising sophomore season in which he’d picked off passes in each of Tech’s first two Big 12 games.
“I feel like that was just the beginning,” Gaines said. “I had two interceptions, and I feel like I would have fed off that. But I can’t talk about ifs and what I would have done. This year is going to be my time to prove what I can really do.”
Gaines got hurt against Iowa State and watched the rest of the game with his arm in a sling. Then came surgery.
Medical staffers cleared Gaines for contact before the spring game, but there was no need to put him out there that soon. He hasn’t delivered a hit since October.
“I’m just ready to get back out there with my team,” he said, “and watch it all come together. I want to pick up where I left off, minus the injury.”
His return comes not a moment too soon, considering Tech lost four seniors at safety and cornerback. Now a 6-foot, 185-pound junior, he’ll be surrounded by three sophomores in the first-team secondary.
“The years prior, I was a young boy,” Gaines said. “The script flipped that quick. Now I’ve got to lead the younger guys, make sure they know their assignments and make sure they’re doing their stuff off the field, because we’re accountable for each other.”
One item he won’t have to worry about — whether he can count on Ward.
Between a terrific bowl game and an even better spring, Keenon Ward has had a change of heart.
“I would say I was pretty unsure about the safety position before spring,” he said. “But when I bought into ‘I’m a safety,’ I showed everybody in the spring this is what I want. I can go make 15 tackles if I need to. I feel like I showed the whole team I can be pretty consistent.”
Ward added that he loves playing safety and wouldn’t want it any other way.
So he and Gaines can turn their attention to being the backbone of a secondary that badly needs them to do well.
Wallerstedt believes in the pairing.
“I’m pretty fired up about it,” he said. “Keenon’s come a long way.”
Now it’s up to the players involved.
“I played with (senior) Tre Porter last year, and Keenon’s similar,” Gaines said. “It’s going to jell together well.”
Follow Don on Twitter @AJ_DonWilliams