If Jimmie Ward intercepts AJ McCarron on Sunday, it wouldn't be the first time he's picked off the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback.
Ward, the second-year defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers, told reporters on Thursday that he accomplished that feat in practice when the two were teammates in an Alabama Pop Warner league. Ward said he was 8 years old when he joined McCarron's team, the Municipal Raiders. The 49ers 2014 first-round pick played linebacker on the team in what was his first time playing organized football.
McCarron detailed their friendship in a conference call earlier in the week with Bay Area Media.
"Me and Neko were on the same team since we were seven years old," McCarron said. "We won three or four park ball championships. We grew up in the same area. I've known Neko for a really long time. "
Wait, where'd Neko come from?
"I don't know," McCarron laughed, confused as to why the media had no idea what he was talking about. "That's just what he was called when he was younger. I've heard he still tells people to call him that, but I don't know. Every time I see him I call him, 'Neko.' I don't call him, 'Jimmie.'"
Ward Clarified on Thursday that Neko is his middle name. He added that his close friends still refer to him by his middle name.
McCarron and Ward ended up at different high schools in separate divisions. That means Sunday's Week 15 clash will be their first as opponents.
The game will also be McCarron's first career NFL start. Cincinnati's starting quarterback, Andy Dalton, broke the thumb on his throwing hand last Sunday and is expected to be sidelined at least a few weeks. The fifth-round pick in 2014 out of Alabama threw for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Pittsburgh Steelers after Dalton went down in the first quarter.
Ward provided the scouting report on his former teammate.
"He's done kind of the same stuff that he did when we were young," the defensive back said. "He looks off the wide receivers. He's a pocket passer, of course. I know he's a pretty good quarterback."
While at Alabama, McCarron won back-to-back National Championships in 2011-12. That big game experience will pay dividends against the 49ers.
"He's going to be ready to go," Ward said. "I'm sure he's putting in a lot of work right now, studying our defense and trying to see what our weak points are and what our strong points are right now."
As for the defensive back, Ward has appeared in 13 games while making five starts. The second-year player out of Northern Illinois serves as the team's nickel cornerback. Ward said he's proud of his progression after injuries only allowed him to play in just eight games as a rookie.
"I think I'm playing pretty good, way better than last year," Ward said. "I just have to finish it strong."
Ward has 36 tackles on the season and four passes defended. The defensive back also recorded his first career interception and touchdown two weeks ago against the Chicago Bears. Ward jumped a screen pass from Jay Cutler intended for Alshon Jeffrey and returned it 29 yards into the end zone.
Including Sunday's matchup against the Bengals, Ward will have three more opportunities to put the finishing touches on a standout sophomore campaign.