It's been two years since the Fighting Illini have had a player selected in the NFL Draft, but Jihad Ward is poised to end that streak. Despite having played only two seasons in Champaign after transferring from a junior college, Ward showcased tantalizing ability from the defensive line, and the big man figures to be an early pick when the festivities get underway Thursday in Chicago.
Height/Weight: 6-foot-5, 297 lbs.
Projected NFL position: 3-4 defensive end, possibly 3-technique defensive tackle
2014: 50 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries, 4 forced fumbles
2015: 54 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 fumble recovered, 2 forced fumbles
5.11 40-yard dash
20 bench reps
25-inch vertical leap
Illinois Pro Day Results:
5.05 40-yard dash
22 bench reps
28-inch vertical jump
Looks the part. Simply put, Jihad Ward is a massive human being with NFL size and he is a great athlete. While his combine numbers don't blow people away (his numbers increased slightly across the board at his pro day) he is quick enough to make plays laterally and explosive enough to make plays like this at the ARC:
He has versatility that coaches drool over. I think he's a perfect 3-4 defensive end, but he could also probably fit in as a 3-technique in a 4-3 scheme if he added more weight and strength. He has a frame that looks like he would be able to put on another 15 pounds without losing much athleticism.
You can see good play recognition from Ward on the WR middle screen, as he's able to release from his block, get lateral and lay a nice hit on the wideout (at 0:37).
When Ward is engaged, he is able to take over a game. Against Iowa this year, Ward notched 11 tackles and was constantly around the ball. Take a look at back to back plays at the goal line, then the first play of the next drive (at 4:26).
Where was the production? Just 5.5 sacks in 24 games of his career and his senior season saw his numbers in TFLs, fumble recoveries and sacks all decrease. One possibility is that Ward played all season not at 100 percent, after undergoing surgery just three weeks before the start of the regular season. At first, Illinois said that Ward would miss the first two games of his senior year, but he was on the field for the Illini's opener against Kent State.
His large frame makes him vulnerable to cut blocks out the outside, and he doesn't necessarily show the best array of pass-rushing moves. Would like to see more disruption when he plays inside; is he strong enough to mix it up on the interior of the line with NFL linemen?
Projected Round and Final Analysis:
NFL.com: Rounds 2-3
NFLDraftScout: Round 3
CBSSports: Round 3
Overall, I think some people are going to be really, really surprised with how good this guy ends up being. He has all of the physical tools you could want, and can fit into whatever system he's put into. Food for thought: his coaches at Illinois were Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit. What happens when he's being coached by the best of the best instead of midmajor-level coaches? I think he'll go in the second round, and be able to produce right away for whatever team drafts him.