Is Cam Ward the next great Miami quarterback?

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Cameron Ward admits he is a natural trash-talker. He’s a quarterback. A team leader. He says getting his teammates fired up is his job. This is especially true now that he is at Miami, where Ward transferred in January to win a championship and improve himself along the way. In his view, there’s no more time to waste. Every rep matters.

During one recent practice, Ward wanted to set the tone early and saw the perfect opportunity on the first play of the team period — offensive starters lined up against the defensive starters. Ward handed the ball off to the running back. He then noticed 6-foot-3, 305-pound defensive tackle C.J. Clark with his back turned, pushing the pile.

Instead of standing behind the line until the play ended, Ward ran up to the pile and bumped Clark. Hard. Clark turned around to see who pushed him. There stood his 6-foot-2, 223-pound quarterback with a big ol’ trash-talking grin on his face.

“Yeah, I’m going to make you practice today!” Ward shouted to him.

“I talk the most out of everybody just because I have to,” Ward explained. “I feel like it sets the tone.”

Miami coach Mario Cristobal would know how that looks and sounds. He arrived at Miami in 1988 as a player amid the greatest era in program history, when the Hurricanes had the trash-talking down cold — then went out and backed it up, winning three of their five national championships from 1987 to 1991. That talk served its purpose on the practice field, as players raised the competition level among themselves before game day.

Now entering Year 3 as Hurricanes head coach, Cristobal believes he has a game-changer at quarterback who can lift the program to heights unseen in decades. The tone Ward sets has lifted the competitiveness and energy on the practice field and in the locker room, something Cristobal has worked to instill since his return to his alma mater.

“Those around him want to play hard for him because they know he’s a flat-out baller with a super high care factor,” Cristobal said. “He’s not going to tolerate B.S., let’s just say that.”

If that all sounds familiar, it should. Miami’s best teams had players just like Ward. Add in a spring game performance in which he threw for more than 300 yards, plus the recent portal commitments of RB Damien Martinez (Oregon State) and receiver Sam Brown (Houston), and it’s easy to see why excitement is building around the Miami program.

But back on Jan. 1, none of this seemed possible.

The quarterback had spent the previous two seasons at Washington State, starting all 25 games and throwing for nearly 7,000 yards, while accounting for 61 touchdowns. He put his name into the transfer portal in December and visited Florida State and Miami. Ward said he told both schools he did not want to rush into a decision and was going to keep all his options — including the NFL draft — open.

On Jan. 1, Ward declared for the draft but did not sign with an agent. “I wanted to hear everything, from draft grades to other people’s opinions to different coach’s opinions,” Ward said. “That was a decision I needed to make to get all the information that I needed.”

Ward said he was told he would be a third- to fifth-round pick. Though the news was disappointing, Ward believes he could have worked his way up during the draft process. What he could not get out of his head, though, was what Miami coaches told him during his recruitment.

The offensive scheme under coordinator Shannon Dawson is similar to the Air Raid offenses he ran previously at Washington State and his first collegiate stop, Incarnate Word. Ward said the coaches told him he could play fast and free. In his words, Ward said, he would be given “the keys to the kingdom.”

With that in mind, Ward kept going back and forth about what he wanted to do. One day, he wanted to give the NFL a shot. The next day, Miami would pop into his head.

Ultimately, he decided he wanted to play one more year in college because he believed it could make him a better player, improve his draft stock and give him one more chance to win a championship.

“I was very open with every program that recruited me,” Ward said. “It took a lot of time because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make, but Miami stuck around the whole time. It happened on God’s timing. At the end of the day, I’m here for a reason.”

At this point, it was Jan. 13. Miami had already signed a transfer quarterback in Reese Poffenbarger from Albany and was looking at other options. Ward made a FaceTime call to see whether the Miami staff would still take him. He describes it as “one of the best calls” he had made.

“One thing from the beginning, there was always a connection there,” Cristobal said. “Even when it didn’t happen at first, it was like this is still going to happen. We haven’t played a game yet, so I try to contain the excitement that surrounds him, but he’s a real one.”

One play during the spring game in April perfectly illustrated that. Ward felt the pocket collapsing and a defender coming at him off the edge. He scrambled to his right and, completely aware of the sideline, heaved a pass downfield across his body that looked like it was headed out of bounds. In reality, Ward threw it perfectly to Xavier Restrepo right on the sideline. When Restrepo came down with the ball, Cristobal was so pumped he removed his headset and ran down to Ward to exchange a few words.

It has taken years of practice and refinement for Ward to make next-level plays like that one. College recruiters largely ignored him in high school. Ward admits that playing at a school like Miami, with its rich quarterback history, was never something he imagined when his career began.

In high school, Ward’s offense ran the run-based Wing-T, and he was given few opportunities to throw the ball. Before his senior year, his parents took him to as many camps as possible to try to get noticed. Only Incarnate Word offered. The Air Raid offense fit him well, as he threw for 2,260 yards, 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions in a six-game COVID-19-shortened 2020 season that was played in spring 2021. Ward won the Jerry Rice Award, given to the top FCS freshman.

After that season Ward began working with a private quarterbacks coach, Darrell Colbert Jr., based in Houston, an hour from his hometown in West Columbia, Texas. Colbert had already been working with Ward’s cousin, Kyron Drones (now at Virginia Tech), in addition to Shedeur Sanders and several others, including Kyle Trask and former Miami QB D’Eriq King.

Colbert said all the work he has done with Ward has been to fine tune how he throws, and he knew from their first meeting Ward had the ability to play at the Power 5 level.

“It wasn’t trying to change his mechanics to a traditional way because that’s not how he plays,” Colbert said. “So doing things like that is not doing anything but taking away from him. Let’s perfect how you play.”

The two have worked together ever since — mostly when Ward is back in town during breaks and the offseason. This past spring, Colbert decided to work Ward out with Drones and Sanders in Miami, as all three of their spring breaks aligned during the same week. They were allowed to use the Miami practice facility, and also did one workout at the beach.

“We wanted to change the scenery a little bit, and it worked out perfectly that Cam was going to school in Miami,” Colbert said. “We wanted to make sure they were staying sharp and in shape.”

The physical attributes that made Ward the most sought-after player in the transfer portal last December are well documented on tape, his arm talent and ability to escape chief among them.

But on-field performance is only one piece of the quarterback puzzle. Becoming a trusted leader is another. In the same way he won over coaches who did not believe in his playing ability, Ward has won over locker rooms everywhere he has played.

Cristobal calls Ward an “alpha,” highly competitive, team first and in complete command. That combination Ward brought to Miami has raised the competitiveness of the entire team. Ward said he feels that trust already.

“We’ve only known each other for four months, but it’s like we’ve known each other our whole lives,” Ward said.

In March, he took every offensive lineman — from the starters to the walk-ons — to a Brazilian steakhouse. He planned to do it again after spring ball. Left tackle Jalen Rivers said Ward wasted no time getting to know his new teammates as soon as he arrived on campus, jumping right in and “clicking with everybody instantly.”

“In practice, you see that competitive spirit,” Rivers said. “When you have a quarterback that is competitive, it showcases a lot of the traits that he has. When we score, he’s talking to the defense. He gets everybody excited, and you want to play for somebody that loves what he does. He’s positive every day coming in. It’s a joy to be around. I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”

Colbert was also able to watch Ward go through a few Miami practices. At this stage in their relationship, Colbert said, “If anything, our routine stays the same, but when I’m out there I can see where he is missing a few throws and why he is missing those throws. So when we go back to training, we focus on that change.

“On throws 10-15 yards down the field, if he’s starting to over stride a little bit, when we go in our training and we’re doing those throws, I remind him, make sure we’re focusing on taking a shorter step. It’s about finding those little things, trying to find ways to make him more consistent.”

That is the goal, of course, headed into his final college season. In Ward’s view, his arrival is a win-win: Ward can improve in his final year in college and that, in turn, will help Miami at the most important position on the field. The last Miami quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season was Malik Rosier in 2017. That also happens to be the last time Miami won 10 games in a season. Hence, growing expectations.

Washington transfer Mishael Powell, who played against Ward multiple times in the Pac-12, compares him most closely to former USC quarterback Caleb Williams as someone who “can make that sidearm throw, can make throws from anywhere on the field, has the ability to scramble, a competitor and leader,” Powell said.

“Cam is the best quarterback in the country. I think he’s the most complete. I’ve gone against top quarterbacks and I practiced against who I think the best quarterback in the draft this year, Michael Penix. Went against Caleb Williams. I played Jayden Daniels when he was at Arizona State. J.J. McCarthy, DJ Uiagalelei at Florida State now. I played against some pretty top-tier elite quarterbacks and he’s right there with them, if not better. He has a really high ceiling.”

Powell points out Ward’s trash talk has become a staple. One day in practice, on a checkdown pass Ward completed for a touchdown, he tried to smack talk defensive coordinator Lance Guidry. Nearly every day, he and Powell yap at each other. Powell reminds Ward that he won both their Apple Cup meetings; Ward laments the fact he won’t ever get a chance to beat Powell in a game, but adds, “I beat him more times in practice.”

“I’ve never seen a quarterback talk as much as he does and then back it up,” Powell said. “Usually quarterbacks can talk a lot and then they throw an interception, but he’s somebody that he’s so smart he can talk during the play if he wanted to because he knows the ins and outs of the playbook.”

Expect that to continue during offseason workouts, as Miami prepares for a huge season opener at Florida on Aug. 31. Though the programs no longer play on an annual basis, Ward is already well schooled on the animosity that exists between the in-state schools. It might just be the perfect moment to talk … then back it up.

“It’s all love out there, but we enjoy the trash talk,” Ward said. “It gets us going, but I’m excited for Aug. 31. We don’t have to trash talk each other, we can trash talk somebody else.”

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