Back where he belongs, Ward sparkles for LSU

FLYING HIGH:  Senior Jay Ward moved to his natural position in LSU’s secondary before last Saturday’s Mississippi State game, and had much reason to celebrate.

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – The Jay Ward safety experiment has ended.

LSU’s talented senior defensive back was moved back to his natural position of nickelback during preparations for last Saturday’s 31-16 win against Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

The move paid dividends immediately: Ward nabbed an interception to seal the game late and led the team with 11 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss, a performance that earned him SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. The move also opened a spot for Greg Brooks at his natural position with Ward’s departure from the safety spot.

“Jay is a very active player, physical player. We saw that this weekend,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Greg [Brooks] is too. But Greg is a veteran that is used to playing back at that safety position and a very good communicator. It was really about getting to know our personnel better, and plugging them in where we felt that they would be better served.”

It’s a move Ward embraces. At nickel, he’s more involved in other aspects of the defense, something that he sometimes lacked at safety. There was an even more obvious reason to make the move, though: He wanted to show the new coaching staff his versatility, even if he only moved back to his natural position.

“Just being versatile, I can move from both,” Ward said. “I feel like I’m more free at nickel and I can fit in the run game. That’s where I like to be at.”

That’s not to say the safety experiment was a failure, though.

The senior has been one of the Tigers’ most consistent assets in the secondary since his sophomore year, and that didn’t necessarily change with the position switch. Kelly has harped on communication between the safeties, and Brooks, an Arkansas transfer, offers more experience at the position.

Plus, it still gives the charismatic Ward a chance to show just how high his standards are for his senior campaign.

“Of course, I missed a couple of tackles against Florida State,” Ward said after the win against Mississippi State. “I’m trying to miss no more for the rest of the season. So I hold myself to a standard this year, and I’m trying to set that one high.”

Like most of his defensive cohorts who have spent their four years at LSU, there’s not much he hasn’t seen, thanks to the yearly turnover in defensive coordinators during these players’ careers.

There was the Dave Aranda year in 2019, which no one ever forgets – best case scenario.

Then, the Bo Pelini year, which is remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Follow that up with a pit stop by Daronte Jones, who had a forgettable season in 2021.

And finally, former NFL assistant Matt House got on board with Kelly’s arrival.

So Ward’s had four different defensive coordinators in the four season’s he’s donned the purple and gold.

He remembers distinctly his first brush with Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, the infamous 2020 season opener against Mississippi State when KJ Costello tore Pelini’s defense apart for more than 600 yards through the air, on a secondary that included a young Ward.

It wasn’t fun.

“I was a part of when they air raided us here, and I wasn’t going for that again. We had to hold ourselves to higher standards. That was definitely on my mind tonight,” Ward said late Saturday night.

A poor defensive game plan in 2020 was exacerbated by a torn meniscus that Ward had surgery on just two weeks prior.

There’s something about Jay Ward, though.

He’s not a small man by any means — 6-foot-2, 180 — but he plays even bigger than his size. He’s a hitter, disregarding his own body to deliver a painful impression on opponents. He’s a ball hawk as well, evidenced by his six interceptions and 21 passes defended in his career.

Above all else, he’s confident. Confident in his team, in himself, in his new coaching staff. He’s confident in the expectations he sets, and in his ability to exceed them. The structure that’s been put in place by Kelly and House allows him to do that.

He was asked Saturday night about the defensive game plan leading to the win.

“When did you know during the week that you had a plan you believed could stop them?”

Ward didn’t miss a beat, flashing a big grin at his chance to show the world his confidence.

He knew just what to say.

“I feel that every day.”

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Photo by CHAD KEITH, Journal Sports