For Jihad Ward, mom knows best

For Jihad Ward, mom knows best

RANTOUL — Jihad Ward doesn’t have a number you’d expect a defensive lineman to have.

The No. 17 he wears, however, carries special meaning to the junior college transfer. 

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“The reason why I got 17 is because my mom had me when she was 17,” Ward said with a smile on his face when talking about his mom, Kareema Ward. “She is a gift from God. She’s a blessing to my heart to this day, and she was there for me. She’s never let me go, even when my father wasn’t around. I really thank her.”

The Philadelphia native is in the mix to start at defensive end for the Illini this fall. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound transfer from Globe Institute of Technology in New York City is splitting time with Kenny Nelson at the spot, and worked with the starters at various times on the first day of practice Monday at Camp Rantoul.

“I remember the first day I watched his film, and he’s one of those guys you look at about three or four plays and say, ‘Let’s take him,’ because he’s a great player and figure out later where he belongs,” Illinois defensive line coach Greg Colby said. “That height is great at end because he’s going to get those hands up as high as the quarterback, but the big thing about him is he’s so athletic for such a big kid. You don’t see that very often.”

Ward made some Illinois fans, and the Illinois coaching staff, nervous this winter when he made some cryptic comments on social media suggesting he might flip to West Virginia shortly before National Signing Day in February. But he stuck with the commitment he gave to Illinois in mid-December. 

He’s happy he did.

“I got mixed up,” Ward said. “I didn’t want to go to West Virginia because I didn’t feel the love. They had nice jerseys and had a lot of stuff like that, but you don’t really want that because at the end of the day, you’re going there, and you’re going to feel upset because people don’t care about you. I really think that Tim Beckman, the rest of the staff and my teammates, they’re my brothers for life. I felt that when I first came here. I never have woken up mad whenever I’m here.”

Linebacker Mason Monheim isn’t mad Ward is now an Illini.

“He’s a great guy,” Monheim said. “He’s a man you can trust, and that’s the biggest thing when you’re out there on the field is you know he has your back, and he works hard. In my eyes, that’s all I needed. If you’ve got my back and you work hard, let’s roll.”

The former wide receiver and safety at Bok Vo-Tech High School in Philadelphia said he hit his growth spurt his senior year of high school. He’s still relatively new to his position, having moved to the defensive line only three years ago.

“I wasn’t really that big in high school,” Ward said. “My high school coach said, ‘Dude, you’re getting big. You’re almost 230 pounds, and you’re playing safety. No, we’re going to have to move you down to defensive end.’ I had to let (safety) go.”

Ranked the No. 2 junior college defensive tackle by 247sports, Ward will likely focus on defensive end at Illinois.

“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “To be honest, I think defensive end and defensive tackle are sort of like the same thing.”

He managed 10 sacks in two seasons at Globe Tech. Bringing the same type of consistent pressure to opposing offenses is what the Illinois coaching staff wants to see. Ward — who has an older brother, a younger brother and two younger sisters — knows they are others back out East waiting to see what he can produce at Illinois. He takes the responsibility seriously.

“They look up to me, and there’s some people from Philly that look up to me,” the 20-year-old Ward said. “I’m coming home to Philly and making sure these kids are setting the right path. I want to come back to make sure my little cousins are OK.”

Ward will see more rural areas in Champaign-Urbana than he has at any point in his life. He’s OK with the more scenic view. 

“The difference between Champaign and Philadelphia and New York is the focus,” Ward said. “I’m way more focused over here. In New York and Philadelphia, you get distracted. There were times when I was at (junior college), I kept going home, and my coach used to argue with me, ‘Why you keep going home?’ I was distracted back in the day. I thought, ‘Are you going to work hard to stay the same, or are you going to work hard with a new look?’ I wanted a new look with the same grind I’m in now.”