PULLMAN – Jake Dickert could hardly believe his ears. Washington State’s head coach had just asked his quarterback, Cameron Ward, to grade his performance from two days prior in the team’s Sept. 23 win over Oregon State.
Dickert was expecting a solid grade. Ward had completed 28 of 34 passes for 404 yards and four touchdowns, plus a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a TD, helping the Cougars earn their second ranked win in three weeks.
Ward’s response to Dickert: C-plus.
“And I was like, man. I didn’t see a C-plus,” Dickert said of Ward, whose only big mistake in that game might have been a fumble. “He was fantastic. I love that he wants to be coached. He wants to learn. Those are great qualities to have in, I think, a future franchise NFL quarterback.”
“That’s how he is,” said Calvin Ward, Cameron’s dad. “He’s never felt that he’s played a complete game.”
Sometimes, people forget what makes Ward go – his leadership, and his insatiable desire to improve. At no point , from when he was a zero-star high school prospect to a burgeoning FCS star, did anyone doubt Ward’s natural feel for the game. He’s always had the arm, the scrambling ability, the wherewithal to make plays NFL scouts admire.
Ward is displaying that and more this fall, leading the Cougars to a No. 13 ranking amid a 4-0 start, but the biggest change he’s made involves his transformation into a more vocal leader – a more confident leader. That’s where Dickert wanted to see Ward improve the most this fall. It’s why he found it intriguing when Ward felt down about his most recent showing.
Dickert and Ward’s Monday meeting came on the first day of the bye week, WSU’s only one of the season. The Cougars were practicing that week, but their road game with UCLA remained nearly two weeks away.
“These are the moments of real leadership,” Dickert said. “There’s not a game for 12 days. You can come out here and joke around and mess around, or you come out here and take the right attitude. And I thought he was pretty good (that day).”
Ward is not a naturally talkative guy. When he talks, he usually does so in a softer tone. He likes to joke around, and if you ask him about something funny he did on the field, he’ll open up. That just isn’t his default mood.
That’s fine for most other positions on a football team, but not always for quarterbacks. Dickert and the Cougars want Ward to be himself, but they also understand that for this team to reach its full potential, they need Ward to speak up, to be a leader.
“Cam is not really a loud leader, but he says what’s needed to be said at the right time,” WSU wideout Kyle Williams said. “He’s always encouraging us as an offense. Even us as receivers, we’re also encouraging him when we see him down a little bit when he makes a little mistake. I feel like it’s a double-edged sword – we gotta be able to lift him up, he’s gotta be able to lift us up.”
“I’m more confident from a year ago,” Ward said. “The guys look at me a different way than they did last year, and I look at them a different way.”
Ward has completed 106 of 142 passes, good for 74.6%, which is seventh best nationally among quarterbacks with 130-plus passes. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and zero interceptions, making him one of two quarterbacks in the country to record those numbers or better.
A year ago, Pro Football Focus gave Ward a deep-ball passing grade of 37.5, which ranked No. 311 nationally – one of the worst marks in all of FBS. This season, he’s graded at 92.2, No. 33 in the country, and fifth in the Pac-12. PFF made him the third-highest-graded QB in Week 4, when he threw for 400 yards against Oregon State.
To those who know him best, though, the fact that he felt unhappy with that performance reveals the reason he keeps producing ones like it. Ward wants to succeed so badly that when he makes the tiniest of mistakes, even when he otherwise has multiple highlights, all he can think about is the small stuff – the one fumble; the one interception; the one pass he misfired.
Take Ward’s second year at Incarnate Word, the 2021 season. It was Week 9 and UIW was hosting Southeast Louisiana. The teams traded touchdown after touchdown down to the final 25 seconds. Ward drifted back to avoid pressure, leaned on his back foot and threw a 24-yard pass to Rob Ferrel, a future WSU receiver, whose touchdown gave UIW the lead for good in a 55-52 win.
Ward completed 34 of 52 passes for 610 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.
“He honestly thought he had a bad game,” Calvin Ward said. “So I learned in high school that, oh, he’s harder (on himself) than I could ever be on him.”
Ward is not coy about the reasons why. He was a zero-star recruit out of high school who never held more than one scholarship offer at a time. Headed into his senior high school season, he thought he had an offer from Texas Southern, but a week before signing day, Tigers coaches drove to West Columbia, Texas, and took Ward out to lunch.
“They didn’t make an official offer,” Calvin said.
Texas Southern had failed to clarify its offer was only oral, not official. Later that year, Texas A&M coaches teased an offer, which never came. Only after Ward played his senior season did he receive an official offer from Incarnate Word of San Antonio .
“When he went to UIW, first thing he told me,” Calvin said. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m gonna go up there and I’m gonna beat (UIW’s starter) out.’ I’m like, ‘Cameron, chill, man. That dude is a two-time All-American.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you.’ ”
Ward has stayed the same guy at each stop. He might be making a concerted effort to speak up these days, but only because he understands that’s necessary to win .
He’s shown that, too, at every stop of his career. Three weeks after the game against Southeast Louisiana, UIW was back home, playing Stephen F. Austin in the first round of the FCS playoffs. With about 5 minutes to play in a tie game, the Cardinals were driving, but running back Kevin Brown lost a fumble that the Jacks returned for a go-ahead score.
Brown was crushed, so Ward went over to console him. Over in the stands, Calvin wondered what Ward was saying to Brown. How could he restore confidence in his running back?
“After the game, I asked Cameron, ‘What did you say to him?’ ” Calvin said. “He said, ‘I just went over to him and said, Don’t worry about fumbling the ball. I’m gonna lead us down the field and win the game.’ And that’s just what happened.”
Ward marched the Cardinals 75 yards and threw a touchdown pass to Taylor Grimes. That forced overtime, where Ward found Ferrel for another touchdown pass to win the game. UIW advanced in the playoffs.
“I think you see that a lot when things don’t go right,” WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson said. “It’s easy to be really vocal when things are going right, you’re throwing touchdowns. But even when there’s drives when they stall out, or there’s a turnover, (Ward is) still trying to get the guys ready to go on the sideline. He’s not letting those mistakes that the offense makes affect the next drive.”
During Ward’s younger years at West Columbia High, he understood that sometimes he had to tell his teammates to clear out. so he could take his defender to the basket.
“Those kids respected him for that,” said Patrice Ward, Cameron’s mom, “because he was gonna do what he had to do for the team.”
As WSU’s season begins to crystallize, just don’t ask Ward to grade it – yet.