We’re taking a closer look this week at 10 Big 12 players who have been on the spot this spring. Some are coming back from injury or in the middle of a key position battle. Others have a lot to prove after their 2016 season did not meet expectations. For these guys, this offseason is a big deal.
Player on the spot: Texas Tech RB Da'Leon Ward
The most prolific passing offense in college football is no longer led by famed magician Patrick Mahomes II. The Red Raiders aren’t expecting much drop-off in passing the baton to Nic Shimonek, but the fifth-year senior still will take the help he can get. A run game that’s a credible threat would certainly help.
Ward emerged as clearly the best option to lead that stable of backs late in the 2016 season. As a true freshman, he did not get a carry in the team’s first five games. When it came time in mid-October to find out what he could do, Ward stepped up.
The rookie rushed for 98, 93, 97 and 82 yards in his final four games last season and became the first freshman to lead the program in rushing since 1999. He proved to be a shifty back and a hard runner who brought more balance to an offense that was content to throw the ball 50 times a game.
“Our biggest deal was, let’s work on more explosive plays,” coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters this spring. “He was good at that 5-, 6-yard gain. We need 10- , 15- , 20-yard gains in the run game. That’s been our emphasis with him. Let’s improve our speed.”
He’ll still have to compete for reps with Demarcus Felton and Justin Stockton, and junior college transfer Desmond Nisby can provide a power punch at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds when he arrives this summer.
First-year running backs coach Jabbar Juluke is looking to add a graduate transfer, too, to bolster depth. So Ward will have to compete hard to get a better workload as a sophomore. But the Red Raiders and their new signal-caller need him to be a difference-maker.