Northern Illinois University Huskies
W.P. Davidson High School
It seems like nothing will stop Ward on his road to the National Football League — not after being slighted by the Southeastern Conference colleges that did not recruit him coming out of high school; not the recruiting services that gave him just a two-star rating; and not by a right foot stress fracture that prevented him from getting medical clearance to participate in agility tests at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Those Southeastern Conference recruiters that dismissed the Mobile, Alabama, transplant (moved to the city at age 7) as not being the "talent" they were searching for need only look at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision active player statistical chart. There, they will see that Ward is one of only two defensive backs in the country to record at least 300 tackles for a career. In fact, the only SEC player with more tackles on that chart is Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, whose 324 stops just inches past Ward's 320.
The recruiting services that gave Ward a two-star rating, including Scout.com, failed to see a talented player from one of the better schools in the state of Alabama, W.P. Davidson High School, one that served as a three-year starter and team captain as a senior. During his three seasons with the first unit, he compiled 253 total tackles, including 164 solos, broke up 16 passes, intercepted six others and blocked five kicks. None of the four-star safety recruits from the 2010 class had better performances.
After working hard after the 2013 season to "put the icing on the cake" for NFL teams that were greatly impressed by Ward's performance throughout practices at the 2014 Senior Bowl, the Huskies standout was discovered to have a foot stress fracture. He had to observe fellow defensive backs going through agility tests in Indianapolis. Rather than simply shut down his training and undergo surgery, Ward had another plan.
Doctors told him he would need six-to-eight weeks to recover if he underwent the procedure. That would not give him a chance to show teams his athletic skills prior to the draft in early May. With NIU holding their Pro Day in early March, the defensive back planned on putting off surgery until after that event.
Ward claimed he was healthy enough to perform for teams and in front of a throng of coaches and scouts that included representation from 30 of 32 teams, he put on a show that left all going home happy, even the player, who is sometimes his own worst critic.
First, the safety delivered a vertical leap of 38 inches, followed by a broad jump of 10'-5" before he officially ran the 40-yard dash in a head-turning 4.47 seconds, along with being timed at 1.56 in the 10-yard dash. He also clocked 6.89 seconds in the three-cone drill.
To put those numbers in perspective, if Ward accomplished those feats at the NFL Combine, among the safeties that did participate in the drills, his 40-yard dash time would have ranked second behind Terrence Brooks of Florida State (4.47). His vertical jump would have tied Mo Alexander of Utah State and Brooks for the top spot among those safeties.
Ward's broad jump was surpassed by only Vanderbilt's Kenny Ladler, who topped all defensive backs with a 10'-7" leap. The NIU senior's performance in the three-cone drill would have placed him second and was topped by only Brigham Young's Daniel Sorensen's scorching 6.47-second clocking.
Ward said he interviewed with quite a few teams after his workout, all expressing extreme satisfaction with his on-field results. He knew questions lingered about his speed, having heard speculation he might post a 40 time near 4.6. "All these teams wanted to see how fast I was," Ward said.
Ward was eager to show them. He knew the fastest time at the combine was a 4.26 from Kent State running back Dri Archer, whom Ward had faced in a 38-24 NIU win in October.
"I covered Dri Archer," Ward said with a smile. "I just wanted to show I could run a 4.4."
At Davidson High School, Ward was an honorable mention Class 6A All-State defensive back, selected by the Alabama Sportswriters Association as a senior. The Mobile Press Register named him to its All-Region 4A-6A team following his junior and senior years. The three-year starter also served as team captain in 2009, earning squad Defensive MVP honors. With the first team, he compiled 253 tackles (164 solos), with 16 pass break-ups, six interceptions, five blocked kicks, four fumbles forced and four fumble recoveries, as he also had four quarterback sacks.
As a junior, Ward recorded 93 tackles (55 solos), broke up seven passes and intercepted five others. He also caused a pair of fumbles and blocked two kicks. He led the Warriors in with 101 tackles (73 solos), as Davidson went 10-3 and advanced to the state quarterfinals during his senior campaign. He also recorded eight pass break-ups, an interception, forced two fumbles and recovered three, along with blocking three kicks and posting three quarterback sacks.
Ward would leave the Southeastern region to venture to Northern Illinois, where he became an instant success as a valuable reserve. He was named the team's Special Teams Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year after he recorded 21 tackles, blocking three punts, including one he recovered and returned for a touchdown. He also saw increased action at free safety as the year progressed.
Looking for an opportunity to get on the field more often as a sophomore, Ward took on a fierce battle in fall camp, switching positions to win the stating job at left cornerback. He earned All-Mid American Conference honors as he ranked second on the team with 100 tackles (48 solos). No other cornerback in the major college ranks reached the "century mark" that season. He also continued his chores on special teams, blocking a kick that he also recovered to set up an NIU scoring drive.
In his own little game of "Can You Top This," Ward actually improved his statistics as a junior from the previous season, even though the team had one less game on their 2012 schedule. The All-MAC first-team pick led the Huskies with a career-high 104 tackles. His 11 pass deflections rank seventh on the school record sheet and he also picked off three other tosses while again shifting positions, taking over strong safety duties.
For the first time since playing for the Huskies, Ward returned to the same position for the second-straight year, as the strong safety became just the ninth player in school history to lead the team in tackles in multiple seasons. He produced 95 hits, broke up 10 passes and caused a fumble that he recovered. His seven interceptions are tied for third on the school annual record list and led the conference while ranking seventh in the nation. His 102 return yards marked the sixth-best total in a season by an NIU player.
Ward started 39-of-55 games at Northern Illinois — 12 at left cornerback and 27 at strong safety…Recorded 320 tackles (189 solos) with two sacks for minus-19 yards and six stops for losses of 28 yards…Caused four fumbles and recovered another…Deflected 26 passes and intercepted 11 others for 142 yards in returns, including one touchdown…Gained 46 yards returning three blocked punts and had a total of four blocked kicks as a Husky.