NIU’s Jimmie Ward could be Bears safety who doesn’t miss
BY PATRICK FINLEY Staff Reporter January 25, 2014 12:46AM
Jimmie Ward’s size (5-11, 192) hasn’t limited him in making big-time plays. | Scott Walstrom/NIU Media Services
Updated: February 27, 2014 6:50AM
MOBILE, Ala. — With a twinkling ukulele, ‘‘Hey Soul Sister” by Train spent 22 weeks atop the adult contemporary charts in 2010. The Village Voice once called its success ‘‘pretty much proof that rock music is dead.’’
Whatever your musical taste, it’s not what you’d picture a hard-hitting football player listening to.
But Jimmie Ward puts the song on his headphones and lets his mind wander to here, his hometown, where he once trolled for Senior Bowl autographs as a kid; to Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where he played in high school and again in the 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl with Northern Illinois; and to this week’s job interview, where the safety received the practice award for most outstanding Senior Bowl defensive back.
‘‘I put one of my songs on and I listen to it and I feel pretty good about myself, and then I wake up,’’ said Ward, a fan of everything from soft rock to hip-hop. ‘‘And then I feel like I hear a voice say in my head, ‘You’re only a man.’ ”
Whether he’s The Man is up to the NFL’s tastemakers — including the intrigued Bears, who spoke with him several times this week — weighing his undersized 5-11, 192-pound frame against his playmaking ability.
‘‘There can be a guy 6-3, but if you don’t got football sense, then what good is it?’’ said Ward, projected to be drafted as high as the second round. ‘‘It really don’t matter to me.’’
Smashing for his size
Ward tells the story with relish: His high school opponent threw a swing pass. Playing undersized linebacker, Ward found himself face-to-face with a pulling D.J. Fluker, the tackle who went on to become a 6-5, 340-pound first-round pick by the San Diego Chargers last year.
‘‘He thought he had a clear pancake,’’ Ward said. ‘‘I hit him on his knee, rolled him out of bounds, took him out of the game for a little while. But he came back in.
‘‘I remember that. I’m not going to forget that.”
It was the first time, he said, he realized he could play in the NFL.
His physicality has proven it since.
‘‘I don’t miss very many tackles,’’ Ward said. ‘‘I emphasize that. I don’t like missing tackles. When you’re missing tackles in the secondary, it could be a touchdown.’’
You don’t have to tell that to the Bears after Chris Conte and Major Wright struggled in 2013.
Though Ward’s 771/8-inch wingspan was second largest among Senior Bowl defensive backs, his size belies his playmaking ability. He led NIU with 95 tackles, seven interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season. He was named a first-team All-American by USA Today and SI.com, the first such honors for a Huskies defensive player.
At practice this week, he was used as a single-high safety and a traditional strong safety and played well in coverage against larger receivers, tight ends and slots.
‘‘I take pride in coverage, but also I take more pride tackling,’’ he said. ‘‘I love big hits.’’
The Bears have known Ward for years, scouting games in DeKalb and speaking with him during the lead-up to Saturday’s Senior Bowl.
Ward, who is training at EXOS, formerly Athletes’ Performance, in Gulf Breeze, Fla., knows the Bears’ situation, too. He smiled knowingly when asked if he followed their late-season collapse, punctuated when Conte played the wrong coverage on Aaron Rodgers’ 47-yard, game-winning touchdown pass for the Green Bay Packers in the final minute of Week 17.
‘‘I heard about the talk,’’ he said.
The Bears need a safety, if not two. Wright is a free agent-to-be. Backups Craig Steltz, Anthony Walters and Derrick Martin will be free agents, too.
General manager Phil Emery has taken responsibility for Brandon Hardin’s failed conversion from cornerback to safety. The 2012 third-round pick was waived before the season, giving the Bears one fewer option when their starters struggled.
The team will look to add quality and quantity this offseason, likely with at least one veteran and a draft pick. Ward and Washington State’s Deone Bucannon, a potential second-rounder, could fit if the Bears choose to use their No. 14 overall selection on a pass rusher or defensive tackle.
The 6-foot, 216-pound Bucannon said the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks’ physical defense lets ‘‘everyone know that there are big DBs out there that can also cover and come down and hit.’’ The first-team All-America strong safety said his meetings with the Bears this week ‘‘went well.’’
‘‘Of course, it’s the Bears defense,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s historical.’’
This season’s history-making futility means the Bears also will eye the draft’s best free safeties, predicted to be taken in the first two rounds: Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Stanford’s Ed Reynolds. As juniors, they weren’t eligible for the Senior Bowl.
Ward has loved football forever, but a new responsibility has given his dream even more weight. His daughter, Autumn, was born six months ago.
It’s changed him in an unusual way: During his senior season, he didn’t laugh as much when he was playing. Football turned serious.
‘‘I don’t like to see no one else laugh,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t care if we’re ahead or we’re losing. I don’t wanna see you chuckle on the sideline. You can chuckle after the game.’’
For the Bears, who had laughable safety play at times last year, maybe that’s a start.