Jacksonville Jaguars' Jihad Ward embraces his role with Joe Cullen's multiple-look defense
Monday was as humid as it gets on the First Coast and the Jaguars were practicing in full pads only 36 hours after finishing their first preseason game against the Cleveland Browns.
Noticeable -- and audible -- for his enthusiasm was defensive lineman Jihad Ward, who was running between drills, going hard in contact periods and shouting at the top of his lungs on occasion.
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Ward says it's for the sheer joy of playing football and being alive. If there's more of an example on the team of the power of positive thinking among the players, it's this 6-foot-5, 285-pound native of Philadelphia who is playing for his fifth NFL team, has traveled the world and, quite frankly, would like everyone to feel as good as he does every day.
NFL training camp still fun for Ward, no matter how tough it gets
After practice, Ward entertained the media with an enthusiastic testimonial on why the drudgery of an NFL training camp practice on a sweltering day is still cause for celebration.
"There are going to be times where you just don't feel like practicing ... times when you don't feel like going to work," said the former second-round draft pick of the Las Vegas Raiders, from Illinois. "You've got to have fun with it. Live your life. I'm never down. I think God I'm alive. I'm happy to be on this earth and I can't thank God enough I'm here."
Ward admits he didn't always have this joyful attitude. He came out of what he described as "the hood" in Philadelphia, had to go to a junior college in New York city to get his grades up to the point where he could sign with Illinois, and has been plagued by injuries in the NFL, with knee, foot and ankle injuries.
After two years with the Raiders, he spent time with Indianapolis, Dallas and finally Baltimore, where he was making a few contributions last season before being put on the NFL's reserve/COVID-19 list.
However, his position coach with the Ravens, Joe Cullen, remembered him when he came to the Jaguars to be Urban Meyer's defensive coordinator, and Ward was signed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
Ward is the kind of big body and agile athlete that Cullen covets to play multiple positions along the front in his multiple-formation defense.
"He's a physical specimen in terms of the run game," Cullen said after Monday's practice. "He's big, 295 [pounds] and can play four positions. He has a great motor and knows the system."
Cullen will play Ward inside on passing downs and outside in base. And he hinted that Ward's signing was vital for two key games on the schedule and against one key player: Tennessee, and running back Derrick Henry.
"To win this division, you go through Nashville," Cullen said. "And you see what the Titans have."
Urban Meyer remembers Ward from days at Illinois
Meyer remembered Ward when his Ohio State teams played Illinois, where Ward had 104 tackles, 4.5 sacks and five fumble recoveries in 2014-15.
Signing Ward also re-united him with former Illini teammate Dawuane Smoot.
"That was all Joe Cullen and [defensive line coach] Tosh [Lupoi]," Meyer said of the process in getting Ward on the team. "They came to me and they coached him, they knew him. I know of him on video tape when he played for Baltimore, but I also remember playing against him. He’s great. He’s a leader. He’s a guy that shows up every day at practice ... he has the right demeanor and mentality that we want on our defense.”
Ward said that like a trained athlete develops his body, he has developed his outlook on life.
"I never used to be this way," he admitted. "It's a mental thing."
But his world travels, which have taken him to Europe, Brazil, and Dubai, among other places, and his faith have helped him overcome the challenges of coming from the inner city of Philadelphia, going a hardscrabble junior-college route to the Big Ten, and hopefully staying healthy and finding a home with the Jaguars.
"I've been through injuries, been through a lot of stuff throughout my career ... I'm just happy to be here and in this whole environment, my teammates grinding and doing the same thing. There's no wrong route, no right route. It's your dream, your journey ... just go live it."
Ward said he tries to pass along one general bit of advice to rookies.
"Enjoy it, because one play can change your life," he said. "Live it and have fun."