Within a couple days of putting his name into the NCAA transfer portal, safety Rodrick Ward got a message from Colorado.
“That kind of … just gave me this energy,” Ward said. “I can remember getting the message and I had seen it and I called my dad immediately. I’m like, ‘Dad! Colorado! Coach Prime!’”
CU and head coach Deion Sanders did indeed want Ward and after a visit to the Boulder campus, the former Southern Utah standout committed to the Buffs last weekend.
“I finally get to finish my last year right and play for Coach Prime,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to play for nobody else or be nowhere else. It’s the perfect place. I feel like this is the best way to go out with a bang.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior has one year to play and he’s hoping to make the most of it after a long road that took him from junior college to Southern Utah.
Ward missed half of his senior year at Beaumont (Calif.) High School after transferring schools, so he wound up playing at Mt. San Jacinto (Calif.) College in 2018, posting 35 tackles, an interception and nine pass breakups in only nine games.
“I kind of treated it like my final year of high school because I did have to sit out five games (as a senior),” he said.
He turned that into an opportunity from SUU, where he spent the past four years. He played off the bench in 2019 and started during the Thunderbirds’ six-game spring season in 2021, delayed from fall of 2020 because of COVID. Ward elected to redshirt in the fall of 2021.
“I let my body develop more and I came back the year after that and had a breakout season,” he said. “Had my best season yet of college football and it helped me get to where I am today.”
Last fall, Ward earned second-team All-WAC honors after posting 52 tackles, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups. In the FCS, he was top-10 in the nation for interceptions and passes defended (15).
“It definitely gave me more of a hunger, playing for Southern Utah,” he said. “It humbled me a little bit, but it also made me real hungry to keep fighting and keep trying to fight just to get to that next level, because I knew I had the top tier skills to play on a bigger stage.”
On Sept. 10 of last year, Ward got a taste of Pac-12 football when SUU played at Utah. The Thunderbirds lost 73-7 and Ward was ejected for targeting midway through the third quarter. But, he wound up recording five tackles, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery that set up SUU’s only touchdown.
“I think that’s when it clicked and made me realize, ‘Man, I can play with these dudes,’” he said. “It wasn’t no stretch to me, nothing like that, and I actually had a good game.”
Ward now gets an opportunity to prove himself on a daily basis in the Pac-12.
As his targeting penalty against Utah suggests, he is a hard-hitting safety, but his 15 defended passes are a testament to his coverage skills.
“My aggression is one of my pros,” he said. “Man coverage is one of my biggest pros. I actually worked on my man coverage skills a lot in the offseason before last season.”
As he continues to develop, Ward said he wants to work on making his hips more fluid. That’s one of the areas of emphasis for him as he prepares to compete in a loaded safety room.
CU returns starter Trevor Woods but has also added transfers Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig (Jackson State), Myles Slusher (Arkansas) and Vito Tisdale (Kentucky) and true freshman Jaden Milliner-Jones. Sanders’ son, Shilo, is also expected to join the team after playing at Jackson State.
“We’re all good, so it’s gonna be some competition, but at the end of the day, it’s gonna make all of us better,” he said.
Ward is also looking forward to being coached by defensive coordinator/safeties coach Charles Kelly and Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback.
“That alone will definitely elevate my energy and just makes me want to learn as much as I can and soak all the energy I can from it,” he said. “It’s been a long recruitment process and it feels good to finally find my new home and play for Coach Prime.”