The 'Ward'en Has Arrived

Junior college transfer and now Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward passes the eye test with flying colors. But his mindset is likely what will make him successful in college. Get to know the newcomer beyond just his giant stature.

Jihad Ward, the most highly-touted defensive recruit of the 2014 Illinois Football recruiting class, has finally arrived at Illinois. Illini fans hope that Ward can immediately help a defensive line that struggled mightily last season.

For Ward, though, the journey itself was an endeavor. But having arrived at a D1 Football program in the Big Ten, he's just doing his best to take it all in.

"It was a long wait but I feel really good about it," Ward said. "I've been stressing these last two years in JUCO, but I'm happy to be here right now. I'm speechless."

Sure, Illinois fans have high expectations for Ward. Maybe it's his enormous stature (6'7" 290 pounds) or his love of all things Illinois, but Ward is just as glad as the fans are that he is at Illinois.

"I just feel blessed," he said. "The fans treat me well and feel special. It makes me want to go harder for them. Without the players and the coaches, I wouldn't be here right now."

Being far from home, Ward found common ground with Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. Both Ward and Cubit have Philly roots, and that bond has been the basis of a strong relationship thus far. Although, I'm sure Cubit hopes Ward doesn't beat up his quarterbacks too badly in practice.

"I look at Coach Cubit as not just a staff guy, I look at him a bit like a father," he said. "He gave me a call and told me he was going to take care of me. Not just him but the whole staff. Plus since we're both from Philly we had that great connection. Everything was a sweet deal for me.

Oh, and Cubit knows more than football.

"He knows all the foot spots in Philly too like Gino's," Ward said laughing.

Ward does have some regrets about his status coming out of high school. But he also understands that the will is hardened by adversity, and rather than fold up like so many athletes do, he persevered and made it to a FBS program, becoming stronger along the way.

"I felt really bad about myself not being eligible out of high school but I had to take that chance and go the JUCO route," he said. "It never was a physical thing. It was a mental thing. I had to be mentally strong. Me being blessed to be mentally strong, I'm glad to be here right now."

Two of the voices he had in his life during that time were his parents, who encouraged him to push forward and now he understands that the opportunity is before him to seize.

"My parents told me to keep going hard," Ward said. "Without struggle, there is no progress. I guess God gave me a treasure of being here. I can just feel it."

Ward had his choice of numerous schools near the end of his Junior College career. A player with his size and athleticism was in high demand, but there was something about Illinois that drew him in, and that set the Illini apart.

"To be honest, it was back and forth with schools," he said.

"I just felt the love when I first came here."

He continued, "When I first walked in I could feel it. I couldn't stop smiling. I didn't get that on my other official visits."

On top of the welcoming feeling of Illinois, Ward knows that being apart from some of the distractions and potential pitfalls at home is a blessing in disguise.

"I just need to be more focused," he said. "I'm far away from home. That's a big reason I chose here. Back home, there are a lot of distractions. Everybody feels that where I'm coming from. I'm glad to be here."

Ward has the opportunity at Illinois to make an early impact on a defensive line that last year lacked both depth and resilience. He's coming in with an open mind and a dedicated work ethic.

"I'm super motivated. I'm hungry. I can't wait to get started," he said. "I'm grinding it out and whatever coach tells me to fix I'll fix. I believe in the coaches and I'll do whatever I need to do to take it to the next level."

Still, almost every player that makes the transition from Junior College to FBS football has some adjustments to make. A lot will be expected early of Ward simply based on his potential. And though he may have a learning curve, effort won't be the issue for Ward.

"I want to be hungry but stay humble," he said. "I feel a lot of love but I still have stuff to fix. I'm going to give it all I have and do my best for my teammates."

Ward isn't just an effort player. While his passion for the game and intensity on the field are two of his trademarks, he has both a power and technique rush in his arsenal. His athleticism makes him a tough matchup for most offensive tackles.

"I think I bring not just my talents as a player, but I want to do what I have to do on the field for my teammates," he said. "I'll bring the passion and the pass rush. I can bring power and bring the heat to offensive linemen. They better watch out because speed kills."

Depending on where along the line he ends up, Ward may further transform his body, but with his frame and length, he can likely hold more weight and not lose much of his explosiveness.

"I don't feel too intimidated (by the transition). I feel like I can move," he said. "I can weigh 310 pounds but if I can move the same weight then why not. I still want to get stronger and faster."

Though he hasn't been on campus long, Ward has the personality of a natural leader. He radiates positive vibes, and he thinks that can have a positive effect on his teammates as well.

"I feel like I can be a vocal leader 100%," he said. "Coach Beckman and the rest of the staff can rely on me to be a positive influence on this team."

As for managing the expectations people have of him this season, Ward is just going to strap on the pads and go to work.

"I just want to keep doing what I do best," he said. "They wanted a D end with speed and power and I let my game do the talking. I'm going to give it all I got."

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