Ward was among OU’s top-ranked recruits for the 2013 class. Touted as the No. 1 prospect in the state, Ward was No. 106 in the Scout 300 for the 2013 class. The catch? He didn’t play a down his senior season.
A standout at Lawton (Okla.) High, the Ward family moved from Lawton to the Oklahoma City area before his senior season because of a job opportunity for his father. He was practicing with Oklahoma City Douglass where he was briefly paired up with fellow Scout 300 prospect Deondre Clark (LSU).
But Ward would transfer again before his senior season to Moore Southmoore and was ruled ineligible by the Oklahoma high school governing body. All Ward did was stand on the sidelines, cheering his teammates.
He kept himself in fantastic shape and seemed ready to make a splash when his health got in the way. Ward was forced to redshirt after undergoing a splenectomy before the season.
But it wasn’t just that. The defense OU was recruiting Ward to play had vanished. Offered by the Sooners the spring following his sophomore season, everybody sort of knew Ward was going to be a Sooner.
A natural fit as a 4-3 defensive front defensive end, Ward’s world got turned upside down when the Sooners moved toward a 3-4 front.
“I never really played in a 3-4 front before, and now I’m playing an R-technique,” Ward said. “It was new to me last year and then coming off the spleen – when I first arrived it was 4-3 and then I was gone and came back and it was 3-4 so it took some adjusting.”
The adjustment period spilled into last season. Don’t worry if you don’t remember Ward from last season. He played in six games during his redshirt season and registered five tackles.
There are opportunities, however, this season with OU at the defensive line. Spring isn’t completed, but it’s clear Ward is making the most of his chances now.
“He’s stronger, he’s smarter, and he’s showing it,” linebacker Eric Striker said. “He’s tough, he’s physical. He’s pretty much doing everything right. His technique is almost perfect. He goes 100 percent.
“He doesn’t talk much. He’s a quiet guy. I mean, seriously, he doesn’t talk much. But he’s making a lot of noise out there on the field.”
Because of the spleen issues, Ward said he lost a lot of weight. He was never the biggest defensive lineman to begin with so it was a real issue for Ward to get back to where he wanted to be.
He believes he’s there now, saying he’s put on around 20 pounds and is comfortable at the 260 mark he’s at today. Making him even more comfortable is the fact OU isn’t locked in with a 3-4 front anymore.
The goal for the Sooners this year is to be multiple, and that’s going to mean using the 3-4 at times and a 4-3 front at others. A natural in the 4-3 system but now also with experience in a 3-4, the pieces seem like they’re finally coming together for Ward.
“Patience is a virtue,” Ward said. “I’ve just kind of bided my time and kept working and didn’t get disappointed or anything like that. I just kept working hard and working through it.
“Playing a 4-technique and being a little bit lighter than a lot of guys, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s a little bit easier being lighter and quicker than the man you’re against. But strength-wise, it makes it a little more difficult. But that’s what being a player is about.”
Ward said life without a spleen hasn’t really changed him all that much. The toughest part was the initial pain and the weight loss. That’s all in the past. His immune system is weaker so he said he has to make sure he takes his vitamins and gets his shots.
He’s happy to be talking about playing time instead of his health. Ward had no problem at all with the coaching style of Jerry Montgomery, but it sounds like he might have really found a home with Diron Reynolds.
“Coach Diron is really speaking to me, and I wouldn’t say it’s better, but he takes things a little bit slower for me,” Ward said. “It helps me a little bit.”
That help is starting to show on the field as Ward has been a constant name mentioned by Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops about defenders who are turning heads through the first couple of weeks. It was a long road back, but the journey might prove to be worth it with Ward, starting with this season.