Ward excited to be reunited with Johnson
If one looks only at the titles, Ward would appear to be the most important of the new hires by virtue of his being named defensive coordinator/safeties coach. The titles create an unusual and potentially awkward situation, considering Ellis Johnson, the defensive coordinator last season, is still on the staff. Johnson is now the assistant head football coach/assistant coach – defense, and he will continue to be the primary defensive play caller like last season. Ward and the other defensive coaches will have to fit into what Johnson has established, something Ward thinks will happen easily.
"Any time you get four or five guys in a room and you have different personalities, you want to have cohesion so you can formulate a good game plan, and guys are not being selfish," he said. "Anytime you're working with people you feel like you can get on the same page with, it's exciting."
The primary reason the transition should be smooth is that Ward and Johnson have a long history together. Ward played at Alabama and then was a graduate assistant working with the defensive backs under Johnson in 1991. He tried to join his former mentor Johnson at Arkansas last season, but Johnson was at Arkansas less than a month before leaving for Carolina, delaying the reunion by a year.
"El and I have very similar beliefs," Ward said of Johnson. "I was actually in a 4-2-5 system at Virginia Tech so I have a lot of knowledge of that. We'll probably expand to some of the things that we did at Virginia Tech. I think Ellis and I are on the same page, from the things we've sat down and talked about, so the relationship is working well.
From 1999-2005, Ward was the secondary coach at Virginia Tech under Frank Beamer, the father of his new South Carolina colleague Shane Beamer, who coaches the cornerbacks. He then spent one year in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders before returning to the college ranks.
Ward and Beamer will be in charge of a secondary that is losing four of its best players. Corners Stoney Woodson and Carlos Thomas graduated, and corner Captain Munnerlyn and safety Emmanuel Cook declared for the draft. Safeties Darian Stewart and Chris Culliver return, but there is nobody else with experience beyond spot duty. For that reason, Ward thinks Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman, two January enrollees, could have a chance to play early and often.
"I think it's big to have the two young men that are here early," he said. "If there's a lack of experience coming back, it's on the back end. It'll be important to have those guys with us in spring practice to learn the system."
Perhaps he is a sucker for punishment, but Ward claims to prefer coming into a situation with a group of young, inexperienced, and unproven players to coming into a group of established stars.
"I'm a firm believer that everyone should have an opportunity, and the good thing about this situation is I don't know any of the guys, they don't know me very well," he said. "I haven't formed an opinion of them, and they haven't formed an opinion on me. I will try to get every single guy that's in that secondary ready to play because you are always one play away from playing. This is a tough, physical, hard conference, and people are going to get hurt."
The defensive coordinator title is not just a figurehead title. Ward will have responsibilities over the entire defense, not just the safeties. He has not had a chance to get the players on the practice field yet, but he has been able to check in on the 6 AM workouts (again, is he a sucker for punishment?). What he has seen there has him excited.
"You see the guys in the 6 AM workout and you see the athleticism they have," said Ward. "I don't see any big, big overweight guys on our team, and that's exciting because you have young men that can move and change direction. Any time you're running the system that's in place here and [we] will expand, you want athletic guys and young men that can run."
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