Senior safety Keenon Ward is one of those players who made a significant splash and showed considerable promise as a freshman, but then never advanced much over that initial campaign. Ward now enters his senior season at Texas Tech not even guaranteed a starting berth. He will have to fend off sophomore Payton Hendrix if he is to be the starter at strong safety.
The supposition here is that Ward, owing to experience and maturity as much as anything else, will start the majority of games in 2016. He has started 20 games in his collegiate career, one shy of cornerback Justis Nelson who has the most starts of any player on defense.
Working in Hendrix’s favor is height. The sophomore stands 6-foot-2 to Ward’s 5-foot-9. And defensive coordinator David Gibbs has made no secret of his predilection for taller defensive backs.
Ward’s junior season was rather an odd one. He started the first five games of the season, but was then relegated to the bench for much of the second half of the season. However, he was called into duty against Oklahoma State after Jah’Shawn Johnson was ejected for targeting, and responded with eight tackles and a pass breakup.
Ward used his surprising success against the Cowboys as a springboard for the rest of the season, recording 10 tackles against West Virginia and playing very respectably in coverage throughout that period.
To be completely honest, safety is a position of real concern heading into the 2016 season. Starting free safety Johnson has shown a penchant for making big plays, but has also given up numerous big plays. Ward is a fairly physical safety, but he too has been victimized in coverage, and has not always been a sure tackler.
Payton Hendrix has very little experience as a Big 12 safety, and Tevin Madison, Johnson’s backup, will be playing the position for the first time in his collegiate career. Factor in the reality that Ward, Madison and Johnson are 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-10, and there is real concern that Tech’s safeties will be victimized by taller receivers.
The apprehension surrounding the safety position is all the more reason why Ward needs to come up big—so to speak—in his senior season. If he can play consistently to the maximum of his potential, he will solidify the back end of Tech’s defense. Ward needs to be a cornerstone of Tech’s defensive revival.