Nebraska got a nice Christmas present as Muskegon, Michigan, outside linebacker Andrew Ward verbally committed to the Huskers. Ward puts an end to Nebraska commitment dry spell and is the Huskers’ third and final linebacker commit, joining Avery Roberts and Willie Hampton.
As a senior, Ward helped lead Muskegon to a 12-2 record and a runner up in the Michigan Division III state tournament. Ward tallied 114 tackles as a senior, earning first team all-state honors as well as the Muskegon Chronicle’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Ward spearheaded a Big Red defense that allowed only 12.8 points per game. He is also listed as a three-star recruit by Hail Varsity, earning a composite ranking of 83.5.
Who Else Was Interested
It came as a surprise to some that the first linebacker Nebraska hosted in the 2017 cycle was Ward, a relatively unheralded prospect out of Michigan. Maybe Nebraska was just ahead of the curve, as Ward has seen his recruiting gain steam throughout the season and he now holds nine FBS offers.
Initially it appeared to be a two-team race between Nebraska and Virginia Tech, but Ward’s Christmas decision actually came down to the Huskers, Iowa State and Indiana. Despite a strong push from Matt Campbell and Tom Allen, Ward chose to join Nebraska and the Blackshirt tradition.
Ward measures in at 6-1 and 205 pounds. Ward has the ideal frame for an outside linebacker in today’s game, as he possesses an extremely athletic build with little to no bad weight. Ward possesses very long arms for a person of his size, a good sign that he still has room on his frame to add weight.
I don’t expect Ward to ever become a 250 pound thumper at linebacker, but I do think he can add about 20 pounds to his frame by the time he is done growing. I’ll predict that Ward fills out by his sophomore season, measuring in at 6-1 and 225 pounds.
His speed/coverage potential: Ward is one of those rare linebackers that actually has the sideline-to-sideline speed that linebacker coaches crave. Ward is an absolute terror on film from his middle linebacker position, as there isn’t a running back that he faced that could outrun him to the edge. Ward has the speed that allows him to take risks and shoot angles from his linebacker position, allowing him to knife into the backfield and make tackles for a loss instead of tackling running backs for a 3-yard gain.
While Ward’s speed will make him a great asset against the run, it will have an even bigger impact in pass coverage. Ward has the speed to stick with any tight end or running back in pass coverage, as he is able to stay in their hip pocket with relative ease. Pass coverage from the linebacker position has been a weak spot for Nebraska since 2011, so Ward’s pass coverage ability will be greatly appreciated.
His football IQ/preparedness: The one thing more important than speed for a linebacker is football IQ. Luckily for Nebraska, Ward has both. Ward shows tremendous formation and play recognition, as he does a solid job of adjusting his stance when the opposing offense shifts, allowing him to get the best possible angle to the football when the ball is snapped. After the snap, Ward does a great job of not overthinking, he gets his read and then he hits the throttle. His read and react ability allows him to consistently meet ball carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage instead of catching the ball carrier two yards past the line of scrimmage.
His tackling consistency: Ward isn’t a thumper by any means, but he is still an effective linebacker because he does a solid job of getting chest-to-chest and getting opposing ball carriers down to the ground. Ward also shows tremendous tackling ability in the open field, as he keeps his feet underneath him and rarely gets himself off balance when entering contact. Tackling, especially in the open field, remains a problem area for Nebraska’s linebacker corps, so Ward will be more than welcome in Trent Bray’s meeting room.
His potential: Ward is only scratching the surface of his true potential, as he has unteachable physical and mental tools on the football field. If the right coach gets a hold of him and is patient, Ward could be special.
His weight: You don’t see 205-pound linebackers in the Big Ten for a reason; they’re not big enough to make it through the whole year. Ward needs to add at least 10 pounds to his frame before he will be ready to battle for snaps on Nebraska’s defense. Ward is all arms and legs at this point, meaning that there is plenty of room for his frame to fill out as he matures. Ward will likely need a redshirt season so that he can dedicate himself to the weight room and training table in order to add the weight needed to be effective at the Big Ten level.
His pad level: Ward plays way too high at this point in his development, something that will need to change if he wants to be an effective linebacker at Nebraska. Ward enters contact with ball carriers high at times, allowing them to get underneath of his pads and drive him backwards. This changes potential tackles for a loss into short to medium gains, something that is harmful to a defense’s morale. Also, Ward plays too high when taking on blocks from opposing offensive linemen.
If Ward is able to use his speed and avoid linemen, he will usually make the play. If an opposing offensive lineman gets a piece of him, Ward struggles to get off the block and get back into the play. Lowering his pad level will allow Ward to be a stronger hitter while also making him more effective at playing through an opposing offensive linemen’s blocks. This is an area that should improve greatly once Ward gets on campus, as he won’t be able to get away with his bad habits against collegiate offensive linemen and will have to adjust.
His pass coverage technique: Ward has all the tools necessary to be a fantastic coverage linebacker, but he hasn’t put it all together quite yet. Ward struggles to get his head turned around in coverage, instead locking in on the receiver and face guarding. While he got away with this at times in high school, Ward will get tagged for pass interference or get exposed with back shoulder throws at the collegiate level. Ward needs to really work on getting his head around and finding the football so that he can make a play on it, instead of blindly face guarding receivers. Ward also needs to work on his hands, as there were a few moments on film where Ward dropped easy interceptions that could have changed the momentum of the game.
If you’re looking for Nebraska’s diamond in the rough, Ward is your guy. I am in love with Ward’s film, as he is everything that a college defense needs from their outside linebacker in today’s game. Ward is raw and has some kinks to work out, but he has speed and football IQ that you simply cannot teach.
Honestly my only question after going through Ward’s film was, “How the heck does this guy only have nine offers?” Ward will need some time, as he will need a redshirt season to add weight and adjust to the outside linebacker position at Nebraska. After his redshirt season, Ward should carve out a niche on special teams while he waits for Dedrick Young to graduate and open up the WILL linebacker spot. Ward should be a consistent contributor and probable starter from his redshirt sophomore season onward, as he brings a speed to Nebraska’s linebacker corps that we haven’t seen since Lavonte David destroyed the Nebraska record books in 2010 and 2011.
College Comparison: Leaner version of Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell
Pro Comparison: Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Telvin Smith