One year ago at this time, who would have thought that a member of the 2015 Illinois Fighting Illini would become a starter on a NFL team in 2016?
Yes, Defensive End Jihad Ward was a second round pick by the Oakland Raiders out of Illinois this past April. He’s started the first two games this year at end for the silver and black.
He deems himself an “Illini for life” too.
— Danielle (@DanielleBloeme) September 15, 2016
Greatness takes time #Soon
— JIHAD WARD (@JIHADWARD17) September 14, 2016
Second-round pick Jihad Ward played 47 snaps (68 percent) on defense. Shilique Calhoun had 11 snaps, Cory James w/1 on defense, 20 on teams.
— Jimmy Durkin (@Jimmy_Durkin) September 12, 2016
Ward was a JUCO transfer and a very late bloomer, and thus a perfect example of what some of the current Illini football players can still aspire to. It’s hard to find positives anywhere in Illinois football this week as reality smacked them in the face on Saturday. The school paid Western Michigan $1.4 million to come to Champaign for this contest and the Broncos showed up and trashed the hosts by 24 points.
Perhaps most alarming was the 287-3 rushing yards differential in favor of WMU. The Lovie Smith honeymoon is over, and it certainly ended with authority.
Illinois drew only 2/3 as many fans as they did the previous week when they sold out the place versus North Carolina. The Lovie hire initially created a party for Illini football fans, with the check coming due on Sept 10th in the loss to UNC. At least that one was competitive for three and a half quarters against an ACC Title game participant last season.
This past Saturday brought a total destruction at the hands of a Group of 5 opponent. Consider this the harsh hangover, after the party, with a reality check now setting in. The Broncos start to finish domination of the Illini showed us how Lovie has, as Jimmy Cliff once sang, “many rivers to cross” yet with this program.
Now comes a bye week and then a trip to Nebraska on October 1st. Illinois needs to fix a lot of issues and quickly, or their fan base might once again mentally check out this season. One major reason to keep watching is the fact that another Jihad Ward could be on this year’s roster. Ward, the 44th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, keeps in touch with the current starting defensive ends Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips.
It sounds ridiculous to say this now, a day after surrendering almost three bills on the ground against a MAC foe, but the defensive line is still the strength of this Illini football team. Smoot has the highest NFL Draft stock of anybody on the roster, and Phillips is second nationally in tackles for a loss, behind only Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers.
Ward can obviously provide pointers and tips to help Smoot and Phillips make the transition to the next level, if and when the NFL does come calling.
Said Lovie Smith on Dawuane Smoot: “He knows how to rush the passer from the outside, outside pass rushers get paid in the NFL.”
“Work ethic. Non-stop motor, smart. I think he’s going to match up, and as we start comparing him with other players, we’re going to like what they see.”
Smoot’s NFL role model is Julius Peppers. Obviously, he doesn’t have the height of the long time Carolina Panthers stalwart, but he’s got the right idea in shooting for the moon in regards to his NFL aspirations. Smoot named the San Diego Chargers as his favorite NFL team, as he grew up loving LaDanian Tomlinson, and he’s got another big league old brother on the current team, in former Illini DL Corey Liuget.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, partnered with FOX Sports Engage Network. and News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, currently contributes regularly to the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye publication and Bold Global.