Updated Mon, Apr 1, 2013 7:27 pm
When former Ohio cornerbacks coach Fred Reed left the team in mid-February to join the staff at Syracuse it left a void in the Bobcats coaching ranks. Ohio head coach Frank Solich suddenly had a gap to fill at a time when most schools are busy prepping for spring practices.
He found former Nevada Wolfpack cornerbacks coach James Ward, a man with 17 years of coaching experience mostly out west in the Mountain West Conference. Solich acted quickly to fill the void and one day after spring practices began Ward officially became a member of the Ohio coaching staff.
“Oh it's been hectic,” Ward said of the hiring process. “But you know the guys here, the staff here … made the transition very smooth. It's been non-stop, on the go, which is the way I like it."
Ward, 40, spent the past five seasons at Nevada where he helped lead the Wolfpack to a combined 42-24 record and five straight bowl appearances under legendary head coach Chris Ault.
“I've had some success at Nevada, we've had some success here at Ohio and it's just great to bring my years of experience to hopefully make the corner group a little more technically better,” Ward said. “They've done a great job here, I'm just hoping to continue the tradition.”
That technical approach is Ward’s main emphasis as he tries to prepare a Bobcat secondary that was riddled with injuries last season. Ohio relied heavily on unproven freshmen and sophomores to fill the void of injured starters Travis Carrie and Jamil Shaw with mixed results. The team finished sixth in the Mid-American Conference in passing defense last season, giving up an average of 229 yards per game through the air. The young cornerbacks now have a full season of experience and Carrie -- granted a sixth year of eligibility -- and Shaw will be back for the start of the 2013 season giving Ward a plethora of talent and experience to work with.
“I'm just trying to fine tune and take their technique to another level,” Ward said. “So when I look at it that's going to be my No. 1 goal, just making sure that they're technically sound. That should take care of them making plays and that's the ultimate goal is to have a group of playmakers.”
The players seem to like his approach. Travis Carrie, who is under his third cornerbacks coach during his time at Ohio said the fresh looks Ward brings should help the corners prepare for their week one matchup against Louisville and star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Carrie says Ward’s style brings a level of aggressiveness they’re not used too.
“I like his philosophy of the defensive back position. The concepts that he brought here are very knowledgeable and they are easy for us to grasp. It's a different system then we normally ran,” Carrie said. “I think the excitement, the different atmosphere that he's came from, it's more of an aggressive atmosphere down there.”
Ward is used to coaching against more explosive offenses out west. Going up against Nevada’s pistol offense in practice and facing the air-raid systems of teams in the Western Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference prepared Ward for facing pass-heavy offenses and wacky schemes, something the MAC is starting to see more of in recent years.
“They throw the ball a lot more in the Mountain West (Conference). It's pretty wide open. A lot more empty (backfields). A lot more screen games, the ball gets thrown around the field a lot,” said Ward of the offenses he’s faced out west.
It wasn’t just at Nevada where Ward developed his coaching style. Prior to coming to Ohio, Ward has spent his entire career west of the Mississippi. A native of Tacoma, Wash., he went on to play football at Puget Sound University, a Division III school in his hometown. There he was a four-year starter at cornerback, from 1991-1994, earning All-Northwest Conference honors. After his playing career ended he was hired as an assistant coach at his alma mater where he spent two seasons before joining the Washington State staff in 1997 as a graduate assistant. It wasn’t long before Ward was offered a paid position as a defensive backs coach for the Idaho State Bangles, a Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) team in 1999.
Ward spent four total seasons with the Bengals, becoming the team’s defensive coordinator for his last two seasons there. During the 2002 season the Bengals defense led the Big Sky Conference in fewest points allowed and had 10 all-conference players. In 2003 Ward’s defense helped lead the Bengals to their first conference championship in 21 years before leaving to join the staff at Colorado State of the MWC. There he met up with current Ohio defensive line coach Jesse Williams. The two worked together for five seasons before Ward moved on to Nevada.
“I've known coach Ward for a long time, he's an excellent coach … We came from the same system when we were at Colorado State so he has a little fast-forward in this business and he's a great teacher,” Williams said.
Ward is fitting in quite well with the Ohio culture. He’s already taken the new cornerbacks under his wing and has veterans like Carrie buying all in. His goals fit in line with the overall culture of an improving program as well.
“In this game of football winning games is hard to do,” Ward said. “It's kind of nice to become part of a winning program.”