Northern Illinois University safety Jimmie Ward became the second Huskie player ever to be selected in the first round of the National Football League Draft when he was chosen with the 30th pick in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers Thursday night.
Ward is the Huskies’ second highest draft choice all-time, behind only Larry English, who was chosen by the San Diego Chargers with the No. 16 overall pick in 2008.
“It’s big-time,” said an excited NIU head coach Rod Carey of Ward’s selection. “What a thrill for Jimmie. What an accomplishment, to become just the second first-rounder ever out of NIU. I am so happy for him and his family, you can’t even imagine. I am thrilled for NIU as well and what this says about our program.”
Ward made 320 tackles, defended 37 passes and intercepted 11 during a stellar Huskie career that spanned 55 games. As a senior, he earned first team All-America honors from USA Today and SI.com after leading NIU in tackles with 95. He ranked seventh in the country and led the Mid-American Conference with seven interceptions in 2013, and added 10 pass break-ups and 2.5 tackles for loss.
His fourth-quarter interception in a tie game at Iowa with 1:24 to play set up the Huskies’ game-winning field goal, while his 61-yard interception return for a touchdown helped NIU to a 55-24 win at Purdue. He made a career-high 14 tackles in the 2013 Discover Orange Bowl versus Florida State as NIU became the first Mid-American Conference team to ever play in a Bowl Championship Series game. Ward is a member of the winningest senior class in school history that won a pair of MAC titles, played in four consecutive MAC Championship games and posted a 46-10 record over the last four seasons.
Carey said Ward’s development into a first-round selection is another indication of the strength of the NIU football program.
“I think this selection makes a statement about the NIU program, it’s not about a team or a single year or a single game,” Carey said. “It’s another statement about where we are as a program. Coach Kill recruited Jimmie, Coach Doeren and I coached him along with Coach Niemann, who did a great job developing him. I think this [first round selection] speaks volumes to where NIU is on the national stage and where we continue to be.”
He is one of three players – and the first defender – ever to be named a first-team All-American at NIU, and was a two-time first-team All-MAC honoree and Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist. Ward also holds the NIU school record for blocked punts, which he set as a freshman, and blocked four punts in his Huskie career. He made at least one tackle in every collegiate game he played.
Carey said Ward’s game elevated when he assumed a leadership role for the Huskies.
“Jimmie became a leader and that leadership defined his play as a senior,” Carey said. “His play as a senior was off the charts. He was obviously the best defensive back in the MAC his senior year and that leadership is what drove him to reach this level.”
With his NIU playing career complete, Ward made an impression during 2014 Reese’s Senior Bowl Week in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., and followed that with an impressive performance at the NIU Pro Day in March. Ward measured in at 5-10½ inches and 197 pounds, ran the 40 yard dash in 4.45 seconds, had a 38-inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 10½ feet.
Ward is the second defensive back ever drafted out of NIU and is the 34th Huskie ever to be chosen in the NFL Draft. The last NIU player to be drafted was quarterback Chandler Harnish, who was selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the last pick of the 2012 draft.
Ward is the third Huskie player ever to be drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, and the first since punter Tom Wittum in 1972. Wittum became a Pro Bowl punter for the 49ers in 1973 and 1974.
For more on Ward and the Huskies’ 2014 draft hopefuls, visit NIU NFL Draft Central.