MOBILE, Ala. – When Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward saw another Mobile-area native, D.J. Fluker, get drafted 11th overall last year, it was a moment when it “really clicked” that he could go pro.
Ward said seeing players he played well against in high school go in the first or second round of the NFL draft helped make him realize he would get drafted, too. One play stood out, and not just because Fluker is 6-foot-5 and 339 pounds.
“On a screen – he might not remember – he thought he had a clear pancake,” Ward recalled. “I hit him on his knee, rolled him out bounds and took him out of the game for a little while. But he came back in. He’s a big fella.”
It was one thing for Ward to strut his stuff against blue-chip Alabama players at Davidson High School in Mobile. If he does it against the top seniors this week in the Senior Bowl, it will improve his draft stock, and playing in this game in his hometown may mean more to Ward than other players.
“When I was young, I used to be one of these young kids running around here trying to get an autograph, looking up to the guys thinking I want to be one of these guys one day,” he said. “It’s an honor and it’s a privilege to come out here and compete with some of the nation’s best players.”
It’s not just the scouts and coaches Ward is playing in front of this week. He will have family, friends and coaches in attendance. He laughed, mentioning that his high school coaches were already at the first practice.
“I’ve got to show them that I ain’t lost it,” he said, then paused. “Obviously, if I made it to this game…”
NFL coaches will want to see that Ward didn’t just dominate Mid-American Conference competition, but that he can also elevate his game against the offensive players from the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference when he plays the South squad Saturday.
“I always have a chip on my shoulder,” Ward said. “It’s exciting. This is what I love to do. I have a passion for the game.”
Ward measured in at 5-103/8 and 191 pounds. His wingspan of 771/8 inches is the second-biggest of any safety at the Senior Bowl. He said coaches want him to work on his technique and recognition of plays from the back end.
Bears fans will take note of Ward’s biggest strength.
“I don’t miss very [many] tackles,” he said. “I emphasize that. I don’t like missing tackles. When you’re missing tackles in the secondary, it could be a touchdown.”
He said the experience of playing linebacker in Alabama 6A football at 150 pounds helped mold his tackling skills.
Ward will spend the rest of the week and the next four-plus months working out for teams to prove he can be an NFL safety. He’s been impressive thus far showing his quickness, and coaches will see on tape that he is a big hitter.
As Ward works toward his NFL goal, he clearly still holds that memory of his play against Fluker, and maybe he’ll make another play this week in Mobile that will resonate in the next stage of his football career.
“Oh yeah, I remember that,” he said. “I’m not going to forget that.”