Jihad Ward on the move upward at Illinois

Illinois is in desperate need of improvement on its defensive line, after finishing dead last in the Big Ten in rushing defense and total defense and tying for 11th in sacks last season.

There's at least one rather enormous reason for optimism on the defensive front, however. His name is Jihad Ward.

Ward arrived from junior college last year and provided an immediate impact, producing 51 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, along with two forced fumbles. Those numbers stand out more when considering how new he still was to the position. His hadn't played defensive end until the previous year in junior college, and he didn't arrive in Champaign until last summer.

"I'm still learning," he said. "I've still got to work on my pass rush and getting off the ball more. But I think I've got the pieces to the puzzle now."

If Ward puts it all together, the end result could look pretty special. After a little offseason muscle addition, he says he's 6-foot-7 and 297 pounds this spring. And he's still got the quickness that made him an all-city wide receiver in high school.

"When he first walked in the door on his official visit, I said, 'Thank goodness,'" Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "That's what they're supposed to look like."

If Ward were simply a bundle of rarefied physical traits, that would be one thing. What gives him the chance at reaching elite status, Cubit says, can't be seen from the outside.

Ward did not have an easy path to Illinois. He didn't qualify academically out of high school in Philadelphia, so he headed off to New York City's Globe Institute of Technology for a year of junior college. It wasn't anything like a typical FBS college experience.

Globe Tech's classrooms sit in a nondescript office on the edge of Times Square in Manhattan. Ward's dorm was located in Staten Island, so getting to school often meant up to two hours of travel on ferries, subways, buses and walking. For practice, he and his teammates would have to walk seven blocks to a storage facility to pick up their football equipment, then schlep it another several blocks to a soccer field that served as a makeshift practice facility. Then they'd haul the equipment back before returning to school.

"Sometimes, class wouldn't be over until 8:30 or 9 at night, and I'd get home after midnight," he said. "Then it's a whole new day the next day.

"But once you take advantage of the situation, you can do it. I'm not the only juco guy who went through something like that. If you really want it, you can get it."

That dedication, along with his pure talent evident on film, really caught Cubit's attention in the recruitment process.

"We always talk about Philly tough, me and him," Cubit said. "You see how hard that kid had to be to get where he's at right now. I can't stand the self-entitlement guys, the guys who feel like they deserve this and that. He never had any of that."

Cubit, who was born in nearby Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, formed a quick bond with Ward. He found out Ward lived down the street from the old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia and told him tales about that place. They talked about their favorite cheese steaks. Cubit let Ward know he'd have a friendly face a long way from home in Champaign-Urbana.

"It was just a Philly connect, Philly love thing," Ward said. "He's always by my side, making sure I'm good on and off the field."

Cubit wouldn't mind putting Ward's receiver skills to use someday. The Illini tried lining him up at tight end some last summer but felt they were putting too much on his plate early on. Maybe this season he could sneak into a few offensive packages, Cubit said.

Clearly, though, he's most needed on the defensive side. Head coach Tim Beckman changed defensive line coaches in the offseason, bringing in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Mike Phair to find some answers. It's early in spring practice -- the Illini just put the pads on Monday -- but Ward likes what he sees so far.

"He's helping us," Ward said. "He's got a lot of NFL experience and is pushing us where we need to get us to the next level. We've just got to keep learning."

Ward is an eager pupil, willing to do whatever it takes to improve. His ceiling is so high that there's reason to have hope for Illinois' defense.