By Tyler Devine
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kevin Ward’s 15 minutes of fame are here and gone, but his value to the Iowa football team remains strong.
With the expected return of senior linebacker Josey Jewell to the starting lineup for Saturday's game against Minnesota, Ward will return to his less-than-glorious role on special teams.
Jewell was held out of Iowa’s 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern this past Saturday due to a shoulder injury, and that led to the 6-foot-1, 217-pound Ward making his first career start. Ward started at outside linebacker, while senior Ben Niemann, who normally starts at outside linebacker, replaced Jewell at middle linebacker.
Ward endured butterflies, but still made four total tackles for an Iowa defense that held Northwestern to just 10 points in four quarters.
It helped that Ward had two weeks to prepare for his first start because that gave him, and the defense, more time to prepare for life without Jewell.
"We had practiced for the last two weeks after the Illinois game as if Josey wasn’t going to be able to go,” Ward said. “Once we found out he wasn’t then we were prepared for that situation for Ben to play middle linebacker and me to go in so we were prepared for that, but I didn’t know until the day before.
“I was a little nervous going into my first start, I’ll admit it. But once I got out there everything just went away and I played football. That’s all you really can do. Obviously we’re very disappointed in the outcome, it’s a tough bus ride home but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Ward, a fifth-year senior, waited a long time for the opportunity to shine outside of special teams.
He made the switch from safety to outside linebacker before the start of last season, mostly out of need for the team.
Ward thought the position switch would be temporary, but he now thinks outside linebacker is where he should have been all along.
“Honestly, I thought it was only going to be a couple days,” Ward said. “Yeah, sure I’ll go help out because during camp there were a couple guys injured so they asked me to go play Leo for a couple days and I’m like ‘sure, no problem’. And I just never went back to safety.
“It’s been good, I think that’s the position I was more suited to. Especially once I put on the weight it’s been more of my natural position. I just feel more comfortable there. It’s hard to explain really, I just felt good in the fit there.”
Ward’s older brother, Ryan Ward, also played for Iowa, but traveled a much different path to get there.
Ryan Ward came to Iowa as a four-star offensive lineman in the 2012 recruiting class. In ddition to Iowa, He had scholarship offers from Minnesota, Michigan State, Northwestern,Illinois, Indiana, Vanderbilt and Boston College and Cincinnati.
Kevin Ward came to Iowa as a walk-on in 2013, but now has accomplished something that his more-decorated brother never did, which is start a game for the Hawkeyes.
“He was a big recruit, a big-name guy,” Kevin Ward said of his brother, who used up his eligibility last season. “It didn’t pan out for him, unfortunately. But I don’t know, once I came here I felt just like any kid here. Just another player trying to make your living, make your way. Guys are treated pretty equally here, walk-ons or scholarship. If you can play, you can play. That’s something I really respect here.
“It just shows that you can make a name for yourself on special teams and then 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.”
Kevin Ward has played in 34 consecutive games and is a force on special teams. He also has been voted one of the team captains for multiple games this season, including for the Minnesota game on Saturday.
His story is one that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz admires.
“He’s worked here, he’s been a really good special teams player,” Ferentz said. “The players keep voting him as a captain, I think it’s been every week now and I think that says a lot about him also. At the end of the day, Josey’s out so we slide been over and he jumps in there and plays a really good game.
“Those are the kind of stories that fly under the radar but that’s what it takes to have a good football team and his attitude has been stellar ever since he showed up.”
From a little-known walk-on to being named special teams captain by his teammates to a short stint in the starting lineup, Kevin Ward is an example of how things can play out if you follow your dreams and work hard.
Regardless if he he starts another game this season, Kevin Ward seems perfectly content going back to what made him successful from the beginning.
“It’s incredible,” said Kevin Ward, who is from Homer Glen, Ill. “It’s never how I would have 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. 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.
“It’s been a great honor, it’s been a great ride just being able to come from a walk-on position and make something of a name for myself.”
Injury report: Iowa will be closer to full strength on Saturday against Minnesota with the return of Jewell.
However, Ferentz indicated that senior offensive lineman Boone Myers might not play again this season. Myers has been hobbled by an ankle injury since preseason camp.
“It's just a matter of kind of pushing forward here,” Ferentz said. “I’ll probably have more on that by the end of the week, quite frankly. But it's been tough. It's really been hard.”
Junior free safety Brandon Snyder will not play against Minnesota, according to Ferentz, while senior running back James Butler has a chance to play, but needs to endure contact in practice.
Butler has to wear a heavy brace on his arm after dislocating his elbow in the third game against North Texas and tehre are concerns about ball security.
Ferentz wants to make sure that Butler is ready because Butler's chance for a medical redshirt would end if he appears in another game.
“We'll expect Josey to play,” Ferentz said. “He's practiced the last few days. Unless he suffers a setback of some type, we expect him to be in there. James Butler we're not sure about yet. We'll have to measure that daily as we go along. And Brandon Snyder, as I alluded to Saturday, won't be with us this week. We'll take it week by week after we get through this week.”
Jumping’ Jackson: Junior cornerback Josh Jackson leads the Big Ten with 13 passes defended and 11 passes broken up.
The Texas native is also tied for fourth in the conference with two interceptions, and was added to the Bednarik Award watch list on Oct. 6.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Jackson has been the leader of Iowa’s secondary in his first year as a starter, but he hardly is satisfied. He knows there is room for improvement and that he has to stay hungry.
“Last year I wasn’t a starter,” Jackson said. “I started one game last year. Just from that I tried to build off of that and now I just come into each day with the mindset to get better and work harder. Just try to improve my game.
“I think there are still areas where I can improve, honestly. You always want to fix what you think you can and I think I can still improve and still get better in some areas. It’s just about coming to the film room and not being complacent, not being satisfied and keep being hungry and keep pushing.”
Missed it by that much: Iowa’s three losses this season season have been decided by one possession, and two have come down to the game’s final play.
Since 2014, Iowa is 31-12 in the regular season and 10 of those 12 losses have been decided by one possession. During that span, Iowa is 12-10 in games decided by one possession.
Senior linebacker Bo Bower is confident that with Iowa’s leadership and the amount of football still left to be played, that the Hawkeyes can turn the corner.
“It sucks whenever you lose but you’ve got to pick yourself up,” Bower said. “We’ve got a lot of good leaders on the team. They’re telling guys it’s not over, it doesn’t matter you’ve got to pick yourself up and get on to the next week. There’s a lot of football. We’ve just got to keep playing, keep practicing, stick with the fundamentals. If we keep practicing hard it’ll come and we’ll get over the hump.”
Get your tickets: Iowa sports information announced on Tuesday that approximately 4,500 tickets still remain for Iowa’s game against Minnesota.
The Floyd of Rosedale trophy will be awarded to the winner of the game.
The game kicks off at 5:30 p.m. and will be televised on Fox Sports One.
Battle for Floyd: Saturday will be the 111th meeting between Iowa and Minnesota.
Minnesota holds a 62-46-2 advantage in the series but Iowa has won 12 of the last 16 meetings, including seven straight at Kinnick Stadium.
Niemann expects an electric atmosphere on Saturday.
“It’s a competitive series,” Niemann said. “We want to keep the trophy in the building. You know, bordering states, it’s a rivalry game so both teams are going to be amped up and ready to go and obviously we want to keep the trophy here in Iowa City.”