Ward lands with Raiders

Ward lands with Raiders

Bill Cubit’s television was tuned to ESPN on Friday night. The former Illinois coach wouldn’t miss the NFL draft.

At his Florida home, Cubit watched Oakland take Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward 13th in the second round. Ward was the No. 44 overall pick and became the first Illini drafted since 2013.

“I just feel like I gave my family a lot of hope,” said Ward, a product of a single-mother household who grew up in a rough section of Philadelphia. “They came from nothing and turned it into something. I’ve still got a lot of things to work on. I feel like I have not made it. That’s the mindset that I got to have.”

He is the highest-drafted Illini since Jeff Allen and Tavon Wilson both went in the second round of the 2012 draft, and first Illinois player picked by the Raiders since former defensive end Scott Davis went in the first round of the 1988 draft.

Cubit was a big reason Ward came to Illinois. Both Philadelphia natives, Cubit and Ward bonded during recruiting and stayed close after the player arrived from Globe Tech (N.Y.) before playing two seasons with the Illini.

“It’s just an amazing story,” Cubit said. “Where he came from and his perseverance and dedication that he has shown in the last four years is just remarkable. I’m really tight with him (and) love him. He’s been a pleasure to be around.”

Their conversations were rarely about football.

“It was about life and Philly and Mom and Grandmom,” Cubit said. “When you talk to him, it is so natural and so friendly.”

Cubit hoped his former player would be drafted in the first round, but Ward’s name wasn’t called Thursday night.

The two talked before the start of the selection process.

“He got on the phone with Nancy (Cubit’s wife), and he talked to her longer than he talked to me,” Cubit said. “He’s grateful for everything.

“You feel good about college football with him. There are some things out there that you look at and you just shake your head. With him, you’re shaking your head in amazement at how good the kid is. In time, they may end up making a movie about this kid.”

Former Illinois coach Tim Beckman, who led the program when Ward signed with Illinois in February 2014, was among those glad to see Ward among the picks on Friday night.

“Great to see Jihad getting drafted,” Beckman said. “He deserves it.”

Cubit has no doubt Ward will be a success with the Raiders.

“He’s got great upside,” Cubit said. “Work ethic is not going to be an issue. He’s a smart kid. He gets it. Knowing how he pursued his goals, you can’t help but love the kid.”

Ward said he interviewed with the Raiders at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, but wasn’t sure where he would get drafted until his phone rang on Friday night with Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and second-year Raiders coach Jack Del Rio on the other line.

“I didn’t know what was going on when I got that call,” Ward said. “Once I got that call from the GM and the head coach, I dropped into tears. I couldn’t believe it. It was hard for me to be good on and off the field since I was a little kid, but I learned my lesson. I Didn’t like (junior college all that much). It was rough for me there, but sometimes you’ve got to go through the worst to get to something great.”

Cubit is impressed that Ward chose to stay in school this semester and finish his degree. Many draft prospects take time away from school to train for the NFL combine and pre-draft workouts.

“He bought into it,” Cubit said. “He sacrificed a little of the training for his academics.”

Cubit told Ward, “I will be there whenever you need me. I invited him down to the house if he gets stressed out.”

Cubit spent time this week on the phone with other Illini draft prospects in Clayton Fejedelem, Ted Karras, Geronimo Allison and Josh Ferguson.

“I told them the same thing: ‘I’m always here for you. Whatever you need, give me a call,’” Cubit said. “I had great conversations with every one of those kids. They are great, great kids.”

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JimOATSfan wrote on April 29, 2016 at 8:04 pm

Maybe the best story of the Cubit years - proud Illini all of them. Thanks gents!

I look forward to seeing where Cubit is coaching in 2017-2018. Excellent man.