CHAMPAIGN - Jihad Ward will end Illinois football's two-year NFL Draft drought. Barring a huge surprise, he will become the first Illini to be drafted since the Patriots drafted Michael Buchanan with the 226th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.
But what day will he hear his name called: during Thursday's first-round festivities or during the second or third rounds on Friday?
NFL Draftniks were buzzing about Ward as late as Wednesday.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that Ward on Tuesday met for dinner with Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, who holds the 18th and 48th overall picks. Sports Illustrated's Peter King listed Ward as a "dark-horse possibility" for the Arizona Cardinals with the 29th overall pick.
Ward was invited to attend the NFL Draft festivities in Chicago. But how will he spend his Thursday? Going to class during the day and watching the draft at Illini defensive line coach Mike Phair's house.
"Just chilling with the coaches and the rushmen," Ward said.
Many NFL draft prospects abandon school once the NFL Draft process begins after the fall. Not Ward. A U of I degree seems to meaningful to Ward as hearing his name called this weekend. He's set to graduate early next month.
"When you're finished with football, you need something to lean back on," Ward said. "You need that degree. I'm the first in my family to get a degree, so it's really important, especially coming from a big University of Illinois. When you start something, you finish."
Ward's family, including his mother Kareema -- he wore No. 17 because his mother had him at age 17, but he never really knew his father -- will be watching at home in Philadelphia. If Ward isn't drafted on Thursday, he and his Illini teammates will reconvene at Phair's on Friday.
While the 6-foot-5, 296-pound defensive lineman didn't put up eye-popping stats at Illinois -- in two seasons at Illinois, he accrued 104 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles -- but the high school wideout and former junior college defensive lineman has the size, athleticism, upside, versatility and work ethic that intrigues NFL teams that run both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses.
Fox Sports' projects Ward to go with the 57th overall pick (2nd round) to the Green Bay Packers. NFL.com projects Ward to go with the 85th overall pick (3rd round) to the Houston Texans. ESPN's Todd McShay ranks Ward as the 55th best overall prospect. Bleacher Report's Matt MIller ranks Ward as the 42nd overall prospect.
What's he heard from NFL teams?
"They just tell me good luck with everything," Ward said. "There's not really feedback. I let all them guys know whenever my name gets call, like I said, it doesn't matter what round I'm in. It's all about staying in there and continuing, be an Illini forever and just go hard.
"I don't want to be thinking about none of that stuff. Just maintaining what I'm doing school-wise and just be Jihad. I don't be caring about none of that stuff. I'm just maintaining what I'm doing. I'm just blessed to be here, finishing school, graduating and seeing my team."
Ward recently heeded draft process advice of former Illini and current NFL starters Whitney Mercilus, a first-round selection of the Texans in 2012, and Jeff Allen, a second-round selection of the Chiefs in 2012.
"They say, 'Just enjoy everything. It's going to feel good but maintain and stay uncomfortable,'" Ward said. "Once you stay uncomfortable and focus on everything, then everything will be good."
Ward will hear his name called this week. If not Thursday, likely Friday. Regardless of when or where, Ward called the opportunity a "blessing."
"It's going to be good," Ward said. "I don't know what to feel, but I guess it's going to feel real good."