Cornerbacks coach James Ward may not be the most noticeable member of the Ohio staff during practice at Peden Stadium, but he’s definitely the most stealthy. Whether he’s sneaking in to compliment one of his defensive backs on a nice break with a pat on the shoulder or whispering into the ear of a safety to let him know when to drop back, Ward combines precision with competition whenever working with the secondary.
“Everything we do I want them to understand it’s being evaluated, being graded, and I think that has fostered the competitive spirit,” Ward said.
Ward, who has been coaching cornerbacks at the collegiate level since 1995, came off of a five-year stint at the University of Nevada before choosing to hop from the Mountain West Conference to the MAC. The transition hasn’t been too tough for him: With only seven games under his belt, Ward has produced two MAC East Defensive Players of the Week in cornerback Devin Bass and safety Thad Ingol.
“I think our players have adapted to his coaching and his system, and I think feel comfortable with what he’s having them do, and I think they’re doing it at a high level,” head coach Frank Solich said.
Attention to detail, one major part of Ward’s training, is the reason the Bobcats secondary is coming up big in crucial situations. The more they see of a defense, whether it’s in the film room or throughout the course of a game, the 2013 defensive backs are vigorously educated whether their helmets are on or off.
“Each guy is assigned to a guy to report back to a group, so they’re watching film with more focus, more specialized focus, instead of the overall offense that we’re facing, but more individually each component of the offense,” coach Ward said.
Another key component of Ward’s coaching style is his drive to succeed. Ward says a coach can never be satisfied with the work of his secondary, and he has pushed it on his players .
“I think that’s the secret on continuing improvement: Every day, find one thing to improve yourself upon,” Ward said.
After five straight bowl game trips, the former Nevada coach decided to travel to the Midwest to coach against an unfamiliar foe: MAC quarterbacks.
“The quarterbacks give us a lot of looks, and we’ve got to be ready for the pass and pretty much anything,” Bass said.
Bass, a red shirt sophomore, has come on for the Green and White this season after gaining valuable playing time last season in the wake of many Bobcat injuries. The Omaha, Neb. product has already picked up his first MAC East Defensive Player of the Week honor for his 11-tackle, game-clinching-interception effort against Marshall.
“I feel like being thrown in there like how we were last year was a good learning experience for us,” Bass said. “Last year a lot of mistakes were made, but there were a lot of mistakes to be learned from and I think that benefited us for this year.”
Solich points out that these young players are important in Ohio’s developing defensive core.
“You look at some of those guys in Ian Wells and Devin Bass, they got great experience last year as they were thrown into the fire,” Solich said. “So they’re confident football players now along with being athletic.”
Last week against Eastern Michigan, the play of Bass and veteran captain cornerback Travis Carrie complemented an offensive explosion in a 35-7 blowout finish of the Eagles. Carrie’s career-best 79-yard punt return set up an early Beau Blankenship score, and Bass’ red-zone interception with the game tied at 21 propelled the Bobcats to a 56-28 victory. The secondary’s play showed what kind of monster Ohio can be when all three phases are helping each other out.
“I think he is instinctive,” Solich said of Bass. “You see that throughout his play, in terms of reacting to the run and also his ability to cover and to stay on a guy, and to have the knack of jumping at the right time.”
While Carrie missed all of last season with a torn labrum and fractured shoulder, his return has served as the steady hand guiding the secondary to MAC dominance. But Carrie gives credit where credit is due.
“I think all of our defensive players have brought something different to the table that has benefited the whole defense. For me to just take the credit…they’re just as awesome too,” Carrie said. “I think each and every one of us as a whole makes the defense sound.”
Carrie’s job as the on-field coach for Ward’s unit stretches even further than most contributions by secondary members. His aggressiveness on punt returns has put him atop the MAC in yards per punt return (15.5). But, it can get him into trouble, as it did in after he botched a late punt return in the CMU matchup.
Regardless, having Carrie back has taken pressure off the rest of the secondary due to his shutdown capabilities. In a week two victory against North Texas, Travis held standout Mean Green senior Brelan Chancellor to only one reception.
“Travis, he makes our job a lot easier,” safety Josh Kristoff said. “There’s one receiver, or maybe sometimes a few, that you don’t even have to worry about. ‘Travis has got that guy? We aren’t even going to worry about him, we’re going to look at the 10 other guys.’”
Safety Xavier Hughes, another player who battled injury issues last season, seems to have been the fire that has ignited the competition that Ward is preaching every practice and game. Hunger is in Hughes’ eyes every time he sees a MAC quarterback rolling out of the pocket, trying to penetrate his coverage zone. He has done a quality job thus far, with three interceptions, good for second in the conference.
“We want to be better, we want to accomplish goals that we set at the beginning of the season as being the best defensive secondary in the MAC, or best defense period,” Hughes said.
Cornerback Ian Wells showed that his self-confidence was through the roof in a shutout of Austin Peay after blocking a kick that would have put the Governors on the board for the first and only time that day. Players like Bass, Wells and Ingol are proving that patience produces points.
“I think the game has slowed down for us and we’ve realized what to do and what not to do in certain situations,” Wells pointed out.
Safety Nathan Carpenter has confidence that the secondary can come up with explosive turnovers to change the course of multiple games for the ‘Cats this season, including hard-fought victories over North Texas, Marshall and most recently Eastern Michigan.
“This year, our secondary has came up with a lot of big plays so far, and hopefully that continues throughout the year,” Carpenter said.
But, even though the ‘Cats rank seventh in the league in passing defense, surrendering 229.6 passing yards per game, their bend-but-don’t-break attitude is the reason the unit is getting things done. The Bobcat defense ranks second in the MAC in points allowed per game (22.6), and it has been able to respond when pinned against the wall.
After all, this secondary has become one family this season.
“We’re not just a couple of individuals out there,” Kristoff said. “We’re not just the safeties, we’re not just the corners, we are one core group, helping each other every day to get better and every game to get better.”