IOWA CITY – After a rare opportunity last week, Kevin Ward and the rest of Iowa’s “savage backs’’ are back at it today, willing to do whatever it takes to help the Hawkeyes.
On special teams, on defense or helping cart off a 98.3-pound bronze trophy of a pig, it’s all part of the job description as the self-named “savage backs’’ prepare for today’s 5:30 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium against Minnesota.
“Around here, you contribute in any way you can,’’ Ward said. “It’s always been that way.’’
It’s a role Ward embraces.
The senior has been selected by his teammates as a captain for each of Iowa’s eight games this season, representing special teams.
Ward made the first start of his career last week at outside linebacker, filling in for Ben Niemann after he shifted to middle linebacker because of the absence of injured Josey Jewell.
With the move, all three of the “savage backs’’ found themselves in the Hawkeyes’ defensive lineup.
That’s the nickname Ward, Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker took on for their roles on special teams, where the trio made up the only Hawkeyes who were a part of Iowa’s kick and punt coverage and kick and punt return units.
“It was a just a goofy little thing we came up with as guys who played on all four special teams but who weren’t starters,’’ Ward said.
That changed at Northwestern when all three found themselves in the starting lineup, Ward at linebacker, Gervase at free safety and Hooker at strong safety.
“It was great to get that opportunity,’’ Ward said. “I don’t think we thought about, but it shows that you can make a name on special teams and from there you can easily move up to a position where the coaches trust you to go out and start and make plays on defense.’’
It’s that trust that has allowed Ward to carve out a valuable niche on the Iowa team.
“Those are the kind of stories that fly a little bit under the radar, but that’s what it takes to have a good football team,’’ coach Kirk Ferentz said. “His attitude has been stellar ever since he showed up.’’
Ward showed up with an idea of what he was getting into.
A product of the tradition-rich New Lenox Providence program in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago, Ward is the younger brother of former Hawkeye offensive lineman Ryan Ward.
He shifted from free safety to linebacker during fall camp in 2016, agreeing to help the Hawkeyes strengthen depth at linebacker.
Ward figured he’d stick there for a couple of days in camp and then shift back to the secondary.
As last Saturday’s start and career-high four tackles as a starting linebacker illustrate, things worked out a bit differently.
He dealt with a few pregame nerves, then simply found himself playing football.
“It’s been incredible to be a part of things,’’ Ward said. “It’s not how I would’ve thought it would play out when I walked on here. I was just a kid with the dream of playing Big Ten football. You know, see what happens.’’
That was the only motivation.
“I just come to work every day,’’ he said. “The coaches are very good about rewarding effort around here, giving opportunities to guys who come from a modest background football-wise. It’s been an honor, a really great ride just to be able to come from being a walk-on to having a chance to make a name for myself as a captain and to get a chance to start.’’
The constant from the time Ward walked on until now has been a willingness and ability to contribute on special teams.
Ward has welcomed the chance to provide consistency and leadership in an area that fills a developmental need in the Hawkeye program.
“Coaches want you to be a leader out there and set an example, getting at guys when they’re not up to par and also being a resource for young guys,’’ Ward said. “We have a lot of young guys on special teams and part of what I try to do is be a resource for them. … just be there to help them out.’’