On Kevin Ward's journey from Hawkeyes' walk-on, to special-teams ace, to fill-in starter

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kevin Ward didn’t come to Iowa intending to be a special-teams ace. But the senior has walked to midfield for the pregame coin toss every game this season, proudly representing the Hawkeye special teamers.

Ward didn’t walk-on at Iowa with the goal of playing linebacker, either. But there he was Saturday at Northwestern, making his first career start alongside Bo Bower and Ben Niemann, replacing the Hawkeyes’ best player, Josey Jewell, out with a shoulder injury.

“Incredible” was the first word Ward used to describe his career arc at Iowa.

“I never would have thought that’s how it would have played out when I walked on here. I was just a kid with a dream of playing Big Ten football,” Ward told reporters Tuesday. “I just came to work every day. The coaches, they’re very good about rewarding effort around here, giving opportunities to guys that came from a modest background football-wise.”

Kevin Ward celebrates a tackle against Nebraska last November. The Hawkeye walk-on hasn't had a lot of glory, but is proud to have been ready whenever called on. He is the captain of the special teams unit this season and got his lone career start at linebacker Saturday at Northwestern.

Ward’s story is a testament to the importance of being pliable, to doing whatever the coaches ask of you without worrying about glory.

He followed his older brother, Ryan, from Homer Glen, Illinois, to Iowa City, hoping to get a shot at strong safety. Ryan Ward was the big-time recruit, the one with the stars attached to his name, an offensive lineman who was never able to establish himself at the college level. But he’s the smart one in the family, Kevin Ward joked, noting his big brother is on the verge of choosing a medical school with the goal of being a doctor.

Kevin Ward redshirted in 2013, got a few opportunities on special teams the next two seasons, then coined the term “savage backs” last year. That was an exclusive club that included Jake Gervase, Amani Hooker and himself — Hawkeyes who were dedicated enough to play on all four special-teams units but who didn’t actually start in games.

So it was surreal when Ward looked behind him Saturday in that 17-10 loss to Northwestern and saw his special-teams buddies Gervase and Hooker as the two starting safeties.

“It just shows that you can make a name for yourself on special teams and then from there you can easily move up into a position where the coaches trust you to go out there and start and make plays on the defense,” Ward said.

Ward was playing linebacker because Hawkeye coaches approached him last August and asked if he would make the switch. He thought it was temporary, as a fill-in for a couple of injured teammates.

“I’m like ‘OK, sure, I’ll go help out.’ And then I just never came back to safety. It’s been great. I think that’s the position I was actually more suited to play,” said Ward, who added 15 pounds — up to 225 — in order to compete at his new spot.

“The toughest part was getting in there and playing on the line of scrimmage sometimes. Not so much vs. other teams, but vs. our offense. We have to get on the line of scrimmage, go play with some bigger guys.”

Ward had a career-high four tackles against Northwestern. He admitted to being nervous before his first, and likely only, start. But he thought he had a “decent game.”

Ward’s teammates weren’t surprised.

“He’s always ready to go,” Bower said of Ward. “We knew that (Jewell) probably wasn’t going to play. … It still obviously Is a little nerve-wracking, but we were ready for it.”

Jewell is set to return for Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. home game vs. Minnesota on FS1. Both teams are 4-3, but 1-3 in Big Ten play.

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Ward will resume his usual role as captain of the special teams, an honor voted on by his teammates. He’s held that position all season.

“There’s a bunch of teams out there that you’ll see guys that don’t really seem to want to be on special teams,” Ward said. “But here we make it a big priority to win on special teams. We’ve built a culture of having great special teams. I take great pride in everything I do on special teams. I know everyone else does, too.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz took time Tuesday to praise Ward, saying he typifies “the kind of stories that fly under the radar, but that’s what it takes to have a good football team.”

“His attitude has been stellar ever since he showed up,” Ferentz added.

Ward spoke Tuesday like an athlete relieved to have gotten his one moment in the spotlight, and to have proved that he was ready when called on. It’s unlikely to come again, but so what? That was never the point for Ward when he walked-on looking for a chance to be useful in any way the coaches saw fit.

“I just felt like any other kid here, another player just trying to make your living, make your way,” Ward said. “Guys are treated pretty equally here. Walk-on, scholarship. If you can play, you can play. That’s something I really respected.”