As the start of the 2017 season looms, the San Francisco 49ers are getting healthier after a flurry of injuries early at camp. One of the names that comes to mind is fourth-year safety Jimmie Ward.
In the final rep of the team's conditioning test on July 27, Ward, who felt tightness in his legs prior, injured his hamstring. Ward was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List, and the ailment kept him out for all of training camp as well as the team's first two preseason games.
Ward's injury could not have come at a more inopportune time.
Training camp was set to be Ward's opportunity to reacquaint himself with his old position. The former 49ers cornerback transitioned to free safety in the offseason, the same position he played at Northern Illinois University. The NIU product totaled 318 tackles, 11 interceptions and three forced fumbles in his four seasons with the Huskies. Now with a clean bll of health, Ward relishes in the opportunity to return to his natural position. But that comes with the challenge of playing catch up from missed physical contact.
"Playing middle-third safety is a very instinctual position. You've got to be able to see it. To me, the hardest part is being able to track and tackle," Saleh said. "Those are the reps that he hasn't gotten. Because, even when we're not live every one of those reps are so important to those guys. But, as far as the instinctual part, understanding offense and where he needs to be. I think he'll be smooth in transition."
Despite the unanticipated setback, Ward still managed to stay ahead of the curve. While he was limited in physical drills, mental reps, meetings and studies kept Ward on pace for his return to the 49ers secondary.
View the top images from the 49ers Thursday practice.
"I feel like I picked up a lot at OTAs. I learned the whole defense," Ward said on Thursday. "I don't feel like I missed a lot. Just the physical part of being out there seeing things at a fast pace.
"I'm in every meeting, special teams meeting, even if I'm not on that special teams, I'm in every defensive meeting. I pay attention. I've got like six or seven notebooks just full of information."
Part of Ward's studying included becoming familiar with similar defensive schemes. Since OTA's, Ward has focused on implementing components of Saleh's defense. Ward spent time studying schemes ran by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks. More specifically, he reviewed five-time Seahawks Pro Bowler, Earl Thomas. Like Thomas, Ward will play a prominent role in Saleh's defense.
"I know a great player when I see one," Ward said. "In college, I remember Alabama was in the championship and they played Texas and Earl Thomas came up and made a hit. I was like 'whoa, who is this guy? This guy plays fast.' The draft came, he went first round. Ever since then I've been keeping up with him. He's a pretty great player."
Although it hasn't been determined if Ward will play on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, he still has time to hone his craft before the start of the regular season. He believes he's still ahead of the curve and is eager for Week 1.
"Since the schedule came out and I knew where I have to play, I've been watching Cam Newton. I've been doing a lot of homework," Ward said. "I just can't wait to get out on the field and have fun."