Athletic defensive lineman Jihad Ward an intriguing option for Steelers
February 27, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was intrigued by defensive end Jihad Ward's performance during the Senior Bowl.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
INDIANAPOLIS — Jihad Ward, a former wide receiver turned defensive lineman from Illinois, already has been under the watchful eye, not to mention a verbal prodding, of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
With Tomlin watching him go through drills on the field at the Senior Bowl, Ward said Tomlin was in his ear, saying “Let’s go 17,” pushing him to do even better.
“He was so pumped up, I guess,” said Ward, who wore No. 17 at Illinois. “He loves defensive linemen. It was a blessing to see him. He was excited to see us hitting the bag and getting off the ball. It was a good moment.”
The Steelers are in the market for a defensive lineman in the draft who can improve their young depth and help develop a rotation that would ease the wear and tear on defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
At 6 feet 5, 297 pounds with an 81¾-inch wingspan, Ward has the body type the Steelers seem to covet in developing defensive linemen. Just as important, he has the athleticism to play defensive end, but also can play inside at tackle.
Ward’s stock rose at the Senior Bowl, and it could rise more at the NFL combine at Lucas Oil Stadium when he gets a chance to show off his athleticism at defensive linemen workouts Sunday. In a draft filled with many good defensive linemen, he could be a desirable selection in the second round.
Quiet, humble and religious, Ward is surprised at the attention.
“It was a great experience being there,” Ward said of the Senior Bowl. “My defensive line coach [Mike Phair] said to just go there and do what you know. I just play football. I just do what I know. The way I saw everybody on the field motivates me to play ball. It was a great, great experience. I can’t say much more. It was great.”
Ward started all 12 games in 2015 at Illinois, but he did not post staggering numbers — 53 tackles, 3½ tackles for a loss, 1½ sacks, 2 quarterback hurries. He had a more productive season in 2014 with 51 tackles, 8½ tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 4 fumble recoveries.
But he played all three positions on the line, including some time at nose tackle, and didn’t begin to excel until he moved outside and had more room to use his athleticism. A former wide receiver/defensive back in high school who grew into a defensive lineman, Ward’s athleticism can be found on Twitter easily executing a reverse two-handed dunk.
Asked if that’s an example of his athleticism, Ward said, “You could say that.”
Ward is a Muslim who was given his first name by his mother. He said “Jihad” is a popular name where he grew up in Philadelphia, but acknowledged it also can be misunderstood.
Dictionary.com says “jihad” means “a holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims.” But, according to the Islamic Supreme Council of America website, jihad also refers to the “internal as well as external efforts to be a good Muslims or believer, as well as working to inform people about the faith of Islam.”
“There’s probably a lot of stereotypes, but, if you really look it up in the dictionary, it’s really a positive thing,” Ward said.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.
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