- Size will be heavily coveted
- Powerful athlete who moves like a skill position
- High motor guy with tremendous hustle and the ability to get down the line
- Flexibility in the lower half (ankles, hips) allow his to run the arc and bend around tackles
- Possesses the ability to maintain balance and control at the top of his rush
- Has played on the interior where he can generate push with good hand positioning
- Heavy handed punch
- Initial strike knocks blockers off course
- Holds his ground with a strong anchor at the POA
- Power dissipates against the run
- Doesn’t win early, especially against double teams
- Needs refinement against the run as an interior player
- Exposes his chest and torso against double teams, standing straight up
- Relative in experience at the position
The Philadelphia native spent time as a wide receiver and safety in high school before moving to the defensive line at the JUCO level where he was a three and four star recruit and the nation’s number six prospect via 247Sports.com. In his first season with the Illini, Ward started all 13 games and recorded 51 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, five QB hurries, two forced fumbles and one PBU as an honorable mention All-Big 10 selection; his four fumble recoveries were second in the nation. He posted a similar stat line this past season (53 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, two PBUs, two QB hurries one forced fumble and one fumble recovery) as a repeat honorable mention All-Big 10 honoree.
Ward’s build and play projects him as an immediate-impact as a 5-tech. As a pass-rusher, Ward can beat interior blockers with great push and hand placement, while running the arc on the edge; thus, his scheme versatility offers plenty of upside. As an end, Ward earned most of his sacks and made his impact felt: he can maintain his balance and body control with flexibility in his lower half to flatten his path to the quarterback. He isn’t hindered as a one-speed pass rusher with good length to split double teams and play in the backfield; he will win most of his 1-on-1 matchups. Against the run, Ward’s impressive athleticism, coupled with his hustle and high motor, allows him to get down the LOS and make plays away from him. He did everything well from the start as an interior defender: he was quick off the ball and into interior blockers with a heavy-handed initial punch. Ward’s strong anchor aided him in maintaining leverage and holding his ground at the POA.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ward is relatively inexperienced with raw technique as a 3- and 5-tech. Perhaps his glaring weakness was how he struggled against double teams; blockers were able to stand him, exposing much of his chest and torso, and drive him off the ball as Ward lacks effective counter moves. He also failed to win early versus double teams and could be removed from the play. But when he had the opportunity to work one-on-one on the inside, especially against zone-blocking schemes, Ward highlighted his leverage strengths. For all of the good his motor brings, it is consistent, especially on 2nd/3rd and short situations. Against the run, Ward’s power dissipates as he is unable to consistently fight guys coming across his face.
Pro comp: Cameron Heyward
Draft projection: 3rd round