Football / Sports

Ward shows ability to find right place, right time

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Because he has his hands full with the varsity squad, Fred Riley rarely watches the W.P. Davidson High freshman team play. But a few years ago before a home game in Mobile, Ala., the coach happened past "a scrawny, 135-pound kid with skinny ankles tackling everything in sight."

"Who is THAT?" Riley asked.

It was Jimmie Ward. And the pipsqueak kept hauling down even the biggest ballcarriers.

"He'd just wrap 'em up and wrestle 'em to the ground like in calf-roping," Riley recalled.

The 49ers had essentially the same reaction while scouting Ward in advance of the NFL draft. They learned to look past Ward's small frame, focusing instead on how often the 5-foot-11, 193-pounder was the last thing an opponent saw before being knocked flat.

"Sometimes it's pretty violent, pretty vicious," coach Jim Harbaugh said minutes after selecting the Northern Illinois strong safety with the 30th pick of the first round.

Ward led Northern Illinois in tackles during his junior and senior seasons. As a sophomore, he was second.

Still, Ward never really looked like an enforcer. Unlike the three safeties taken ahead of him in the first round, all of whom weighed at least 200 pounds, Ward never lost the look of the little brother who honed his tackling skills by grasping at his bigger brothers in backyard drills.

The 49ers see bigger things ahead. They envision him competing for time at nickel back while serving as an understudy to safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea.

"Don't mistake lack of size for lack of toughness, because it's not the case," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said on the night of Ward's selection. "He's a highly competitive young man that's beat the odds his whole career."

No major college recruited Ward. And Northern Illinois did so only with skepticism. Riley, the Davidson High coach, remembered how an NIU representative originally came to the school to scout a quarterback. The college coach thought the QB could be converted to safety and plug a hole in the secondary.

"No, no, no," Riley said. "The guy you want is Jimmie Ward."

The NIU assistant took one look at the speck of a defensive back and figured Riley must be kidding. So the coach pressed the issue. "Trust me," Riley said. "Just watch him for a while. If you take a chance on this kid and it doesn't work out, I will give you your money back."

Jay Sawvel, who helped recruit Ward to NIU, doesn't recall a conversation like that. But he did remember that the Huskies' staff remained so concerned with Ward's size that they were hesitant to make a scholarship offer. They were worried that Ward was too slow to be a corner, too small to be a safety.

So during Ward's official visit to NIU, they sat in coach Jerry Kill's basement and cautioned the kid that they needed more time to think about whether he was a fit.

"I thought Jimmie was going to cry," Sawvel said. "He just wanted a Division I scholarship so bad."

Sawvel and the staff dived into a marathon film session of defensive backs on their short list. And soon it became clear that nobody made as many plays as Ward.

"I've been coaching in the secondary for 20 years, and I don't know if I've ever seen a player who better understands the timing--whatever that mechanism is--that allows you to hit somebody with everything you've got," said Sawvel, now an assistant under Kill at Minnesota.

Sawvel laughs. He knows NIU almost blew it. And he thinks NFL teams might someday regret underestimating the scrawny kid from Mobile.

Sawvel said that in the lead-up to the draft several NFL teams contacted him in search of a character flaw to explain why Ward is so often overlooked. "They were doing a lot of fishing," he said. Sawvel had nothing for them. No red flags, no trouble swept under the rug.

"He's just a nice kid," he said, "who tries to hit you as hard as he can."

Where does that pound-for-pound punch come from? Ward said he was about 9 years old the first time he learned how to bring down somebody bigger. His father, Derrick Daniels, used to put his teenage boys James and Cortez through running-back drills in the backyard. Ward's job was to play defense.

Recognizing the size mismatch against his siblings, Ward became a master of the roll tackle. He'd simply wrap up low and hold on tight until the opponent fell to the turf.

Asked now to describe his style as a hitter, Ward said: "Smart."

"I don't go for the big hits, not all the time," he said. "When the big hits are there, I take them. But normally I just get the guy to the ground and go play the next down."

Ward brings plenty of athleticism. He ran the 40 in 4.47 on his pro day, a figure that would have ranked second among safeties had he done it at the NFL Combine.

Harbaugh also praised him for his instincts, saying that "he reacts to plays before anybody else sees them. He's just a step ahead of the rest of the defense."

Jay Niemann can attest to that. He saw it as the NIU defensive coordinator and recalled a big moment last year when Ward's instincts took over. With 1:24 to play against Iowa and the score tied 27-27, Ward, in single coverage, read the quarterback, jumped the route and made the interception that set up the winning field goal.

"It seems like he has the play in his head even before it happens," Niemann said. "He's always in the right place at the right time. As much as I'd love to say that's coaching, that's genuine player instinct."

On the day he was drafted, Ward was in the right place again. He'd hopped in his car to drive to New Orleans--about three hours round-trip--because he needed to buy his mother a birthday present.

While on the road, Ward kept tabs on the early picks via Instagram and deduced that he'd be home in plenty of time to hear his own name. But first, he had to buy his mother a Louis Vuitton purse.

The family never had much money and lived in some rough neighborhoods in Mobile. But Torcivia made sure that her boy steered clear of the wrong crowd. His worst vice, he said, was being a class clown, such a wisecracker that his eighth-grade teacher once warned him: "You're going to make your mother cry one day."

Ward recounted that story the day he was drafted into the NFL.

"She was right," he said. "But they were tears of joy."

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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