ALAMEDA -– Jihad Ward is a young football player. The 22-year old’s body kept forcing a position switch, from wide receiver and defensive back to tight end to his rightful place on the defensive line.
It makes sense considering his current frame. He stands 6-foot-5, 297 pounds. Ward’s always had speed and strength. His size just kept increasing from high school to junior college, before transferring to the University of Illinois.
“I was getting heavier and heavier but I was maintaining my speed, so I stuck to the defensive line and focused on that,” Ward said. “I’m still learning the game.”
Ward is considered a developmental prospect, a versatile defensive lineman in need of refinement. He’s a hard worker first, and believes that will be the key to realizing potential.
That potential convinced the Raiders to select him with the No. 44 overall pick in Friday’s NFL Draft. Analysts were split on the selection, with some expressing disappointment in his lack of college production while others praised his upside.
That sounds like last year’s second-round pick. Florida State’s Mario Edwards Jr. was a versatile defensive lineman and a physical freak who disappointed on the stat sheet. Edwards Jr. turned out okay, making an immediate impact in his rookie year.
There’s no guarantee Ward will travel a similar path, but his motivation is high to do so.
“I still act like I’m in junior college, fighting for everything I have,” Ward said. “I just want to keep grinding, keep staying uncomfortable. If I do something good, I put it in the past. I don’t want to hear the praise. I want hear what I need to work on. I’m just going to keep pushing myself.”
Ward wants to capitalize on every opportunity to learn, and he’ll be able to do that right away. ESPN reported that Ward will need arthroscopic knee surgery and could miss six weeks, which would encompass most of the offseason program.
That would be a real setback, something Ward doesn’t believe will occur. He said he suffered a minor tear in the meniscus of his right knee during his senior year, and had a procedure to fix the issue. He said he would have another surgery if the Raiders deemed it necessary.
“I could be on the field very quickly,” Ward said. “…I’m healthy. If there’s situation that needs to be handled, we can see what’s going on with that. If it’s fine, it’s fine. If there’s something wrong, we’ll fix it.”