The rise in Cameron Ward after his transfer from Incarnate Ward has been nothing short of a meme stock. An incredibly productive player at the FCS level, Ward joins Washington State alongside his college head coach Eric Morris under Jake Dickert’s staff.
Given the exponential rise in value, expectations, and potentially draft stock, it’s time to evaluate the situation and understand recent developments.
The Rise to Stardom
A year ago, this would’ve been a reach. Two years ago, you would’ve been laughed at for suggesting it. Three years ago, when Ward had one FCS offer as the quarterback for a Wing-T offense in high school? Unfathomable. That’s how unexpected the rise of Washington State quarterback has been.
His high-school stats don’t look like a quarterback’s. Hell, you would assume this was a part-time player en route to a positional switch at the next level. As a senior, in 10 games, Ward posted had only 109 attempts for 49 completions (45% completion percentage), 948 yards, eight touchdowns, and five interceptions. In fact, in his entire high school career, he attempted only 267 passes in 24 games. His play in the Wing-T was fine, but he never attempted more than 20 passes in a game. No school had a shot to see him live or watch a tape of him. A black box prospect who would need substantial development to operate a collegiate offense. All this considered, the rise of Ward was indeed out of left field.
Flash forward to 2022 – after two dominant years at Incarnate Word, where he starred as a sophomore posting 4,648 passing yards along with 47 touchdowns and only ten interceptions, Ward followed his coach Eric Morris and took his talents to Pullman. Under head coach Morris, Ward flourished in the modified air raid, helping lead the Cardinals to a 10-win season, a major accomplishment – hopefully, the first of many.
Washington State and the Addition of Eric Morris
The disaster that was the Nick Rolovich tenure at Washington State likely resulted in a smoother, less sexy hire in Jake Dickert. Rolovich responded incredibly poorly to the students looking for racial unity, resulting in a lawsuit based on retaliation. He faced backlash from the students and university due to his stance on vaccination. It made it a quick out for the Cougars. Independently of beliefs on the topic, it’s hard to sell his skepticism during the height of players speaking out for racial equality drove a wedge between him and a predominantly Black sport.
Enter former defensive coordinator Jake Dickert. The interim coach following Rolovich’s firing, Dickert was granted the full-time role to lead the Cougars into the future. A well-respected coach, Dickert’s first move was the hiring of Incarnate Ward head coach Eric Morris as offensive coordinator. Interestingly, most defensive-minded coaches go conservative with their hires, but Morris is the exact opposite.
Morris is a 36-year-old rising star in the college football sphere, coming from the Mike Leach coaching tree. He should provide an offensive jolt the Cougars have missed since the Leach era. Morris served as the offensive coordinator at Texas tech under Arizona Cardinal’s head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Under Kingsbury, Morris went extremely pass-heavy with a 58% neutral game script pass rate in his tenure as offensive coordinator, including coaching Patrick Mahomes. His average 58% pass rate would have ranked eighth in the country in 2021. A one-time Texas Tech receiver, Morris brings a modified air raid to the Cougars this season. This will, in no uncertain terms, be one of the country’s pass heaviest offenses in 2022.
As a note – the neutral game pass rate is excellent at determining what the offensive philosophy is independent of garbage time or obvious run situations. However, despite the wide world of data, FCS game data does not currently have neutral game script pass rate data, hence why we’re using Morris’ tenure at Texas Tech as a proxy for now.
Incarnate Word 2021 Production In Comparison to 2021’s Top FBS Passing Teams
Additionally, the other two key metrics when projecting a high-end passive volume offense are pass attempts per game and pace. All three metrics work together, but a quicker pace produces the most pass heaviest offenses when combined with a high pass rate. In 2021, Incarnate Word would have ranked third in pass attempts per game by 5.5 attempts over fourth and would have been fourth in plays per minute with Wake Forest. Morris not only has a traditionally pass-heavy offense but plays at an incredible pace allowing an average of 49.8 pass attempts per game. An elite number in modern college football.
Over time, we’ve seen volume matters. In 2021, seven of the top ten teams in pass attempts per game above had quarterbacks that finished in the top 12 of points per game in college fantasy last season. The best comparison for Washington State has been Western Kentucky, but the comparisons hold true given Zach Kittley’s system. It’s not unfounded they could operate incredibly similar to the Hilltoppers from last season. One team was in the Conference USA (Western Kentucky), and another will play in the Pac-12. A slightly tougher challenge.
Cameron Ward: An Analytical Deep Dive
Establishing that this situation is incredibly productive for QBs, it’s time to break down Ward. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. One thing to keep in mind during all this analysis is that Ward is still a developing player. His sub-300 pass attempts in high school and exclusive air raid offense at Incarnate Word paint the picture of a QB from which we still haven’t seen the best. Will Ward declare in 2023 if he meets, admittedly high expectations? We’ll see, but there are still questions about his developmental trajectory.
Ward has been a raw statistical monster. Through 19 games as a starter at Incarnate Word, Ward posted 6,908 yards (363 yards per game) and a 71-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Despite starting at the earliest possible point, Ward has been nothing but statistically productive from Day 1. Beating out incumbent Jon Copeland in 2020, he has gone above and beyond impressive coaches at every step of the process.
The raw statistical output, in some aspects, is buoyed by the incredibly heavy pass rate and Morris’ adapted air raid system. For college fantasy – that’s fine! I expect Top12 production from Ward this season and am drafting him as such. If your quarterback has talent and you have an incredibly high pass rate, it’s difficult not to produce high-end fantasy finishes. Ward shouldn’t struggle there, given the data laid out above. The real question is what to make of his profile in the context of NFL potential.
Ward hasn’t found the need to pass deep often. By product of the system, deep passes are generally limited. In 2021, only 13.7% of Ward’s attempts were 20+ yards downfield. This isn’t due to a lack of arm strength; it’s designed in this system. Again, not a huge concern as it would have been between C.J. Stroud (14%) and Bryce Young (13.5%). I’m not ready to knock his deep pass rate, especially when elite quarterbacks in his respective class have not done so at a higher and consistent level.
The concern I do have about his deep passing is accuracy, according to PFF, his downfield (20+) accuracy percent was 33%, this would have ranked 99th of 112 qualified quarterbacks last season. Accuracy Percentage is nominally important because it tries to isolate the surrounding situation like bad receivers (especially true at Incarnate Word). It’s hard not to acknowledge how poor his offensive line has played, giving up pressures 29.3% of the time on deep passes, ranking second (in a bad way) in his respective class.
2023 Draft Eligible Quarterback Deep Passing Production
Again, as a raw passer, there’s a willingness to let the deep passing inaccuracy slide. This is still a player who averaged under 12 pass attempts per game in high school. As we get closer to the line of scrimmage, the pass rate goes up and while Ward follows his trend, it still lags his peers. His intermediate (10-19 yards) accuracy percentage improves, ranked 66th of 112 players. He’s still in the lower half. However, of the QBs in our sample, Ward has clearly had the least time to throw, lending credence to the idea that his surrounding cast was subpar at best. His 21% pressure rate on intermediate throws ranks substantially better, 88th of 112. The time to throw is suspect, meaning he’s likely scrambling at that point despite a relatively low-pressure rate.
2023 Draft Eligible Quarterback Intermediate Passing Production
Using data from passes going 10+ yards (31.4%) of Ward’s passes, we get more insight into the offensive scheme than his abilities. A short game, which is traditional to most air raid variations, results in underdeveloped deep and intermediate passing concepts. This underscores some of the questions about Ward. Can he be an effective deep passer with an excellent arm but limited experience?
The data certainly points to a questionable outcome based on the limited sample we have. There should be questions about Ward’s deep and intermediate game to be entirely transparent. It’s not something Eric Morris and traditional air raid offenses focus on. But as I mentioned above, it’s not a skills question. Willingness to pass deep and develop routes 20+ yards downfield is a drawback of the offense Eric Morris runs. These are still skills that Cameron Ward needs to develop still. Not that he can’t…but the situation may not be conducive to it.
Pushing the Envelope: The Future of Cameron Ward
For QBs, numbers don’t tell the whole story, especially when a player comes from an unconventional system. We’re seeing more QBs enter the NFL from air-raid systems or offshoots of it. Lincoln Riley has run it for years in Oklahoma, putting Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into the NFL. Kliff Kingsbury coached Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, Gardner Minshew is puttering around in the league and flashed at times, and Jared Goff is the current starter for the Detroit Lions. There’s precedence for air raid quarterbacks in the NFL. While comparing the Ward to the likes of Patrick Mahomes is unfair and unrealistic, it gives us insight into what could be.
Beyond the advanced passing data, it’s still important to break down some of his films to understand the type of player Ward. Below, a throw Ward makes against Nicholls is impressive for a few reasons. First, while he’s not a runner per se, he utilizes his mobility extremely well. Escaping pressure immediately, Ward buys himself time to get reset and make an impressive downfield throw. His placement in the face of pressure and the wall the ball jumps out of his hands is why the hype exists. The arm talent is absurd.
While the above throw is a microcosm of Ward in a single play, his tape against McNeese is littered with potential. The ability to adjust arm slot is something you see in high-end quarterback prospects. It’s a high football-IQ move, but it’s not something every quarterback can do successfully while maintaining accuracy. That’s something that continually shows on Ward’s tape. His high-level understanding of the game and his ability is a rare combination, which is why so many programs recruited him when he entered the portal.
Based on the above film, it’s evident Ward can make deep throws with relative consistency. His ability to throw off-platform when necessary using his above-average mobility gives teams a lot of different ways to leverage his skill set. While I don’t expect him to be a true dual-threat, mobility in the pocket and the ability to improvise with his legs are evident. To underscore how impressive Ward’s arm is, the throw below gives insight into the pure arm talent. Ward makes this throw look substantially easier than it is. Putting it right on target down the sidelines based on his body position and place on the field, not many QBs can make it look so effortless but not only is this an NFL throw, it’s a throw most can make but not with the ease Ward does. It’s legitimately special arm talent.
Despite feeling that Campus2Canton is leading the way, the hype is coming from all directions. Early this year, 247’s Chris Hummer commented, “I’ve had FBS personnel tell me Cameron Ward is a ‘borderline generational talent” on Cougarfan.com. This is a player who Lane Kiffin courted before landing Jaxson Dart, had multiple Power 5 offers, and ranked as 247’s fourth QB in the portal behind Caleb Williams, Quinn Ewers, and the aforementioned Dart. According to The Athletic’s profile on Ward, Kiffin courted Ward, telling him, “Cameron, you’re gonna be a first-round draft pick.” Kiffin’s first choice at the time was Ward. An SEC school that continually finishes with 9-10 wins in the SEC West should tell you everything you need to know about how highly regarded he is.
Even if you don’t buy what the rankers and evaluators at Campus2Canton are selling, the smoke surrounding this fire is too much to ignore. Ward has the tools, the excitement but most importantly, the work ethic to get it done. Bet on the player and talent.