October 23, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
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Bringing pain part of Ward’s game

BEREA — Basketball has its enforcers, hockey has its goons and professional football has the roaming safety who can deliver a bone-shattering hit.

The Cleveland Browns, who haven’t had one of those since Eric Turner played in the early 1990s, hope they’ve found another big hitter in Oregon’s T.J. Ward.

The Browns selected Ward with the sixth pick of the second round — No. 38 overall — Friday night, bypassing several other safeties who were rated higher and had yet to be picked.

“He’s lighting people up and that’s an intriguing thing for us,” Browns general manager Tom Heckert said. “That’s obviously the first thing you notice when you watch him.”

While playing a high-flying style has brought oohs and ahhs from the Volunteers faithful and earned Ward attention from Heckert and Browns president Mike Holmgren, it has also brought a plethora of injuries.

Ward served as a backup during his first three years at California powerhouse De La Salle High School, earned a starting role his senior season and played just three games before rupturing his left patellar tendon.

The lack of exposure cost Ward looks from major college programs, and he walked on at Oregon. He excelled during the 2006 spring practices and was awarded a starting cornerback spot, but tore the MCL in the same knee before the season began.

Ward had surgery on the knee and returned six weeks later, but he experienced unbearable pain and needed a second surgery.

He returned as a special teams specialist for the 2007 season, but required blood to be drained from his knee every two weeks.

Ward doesn’t expect his injury history to hinder him during his pro career.

“Not at all — I’m 100 percent,” he said. “I’ll be ready for this first minicamp coming up and I am ready to contribute in any way the coaches or staff needs me to. I’ll be ready as soon as I get to Cleveland.”

Ward has played relatively pain-free the last two years, but professional scouts have found new reasons to criticize him.

Beside the obvious worry of durability in a league where hard hits often send players to the in-jured reserve list, Ward is said to have limited range, misses many tackles because he’s looking for “the kill shot” and has average speed.

But Ward also has many positives to his game. He has plenty of strength and isn’t afraid of con-tact. For those Browns fans who enjoy seeing a vicious shot, Ward could deliver many — both on receivers coming across the middle or on running backs who break through the line.

“I’m pretty compact, so I’m pretty good at exploding,” said the 5-foot-11 Ward. “When I get to the ball carrier, I just give it everything I have. I just use all my energy and all my strength with every hit and every tackle.”

Ward, whose father, Terrell, starred at San Diego State before being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1980, became a serious draft prospect after his last two seasons at Oregon. He finished with 169 tackles — including eight for loss — 14 pass breakups, five forced fumbles and a pair of interceptions during his junior and senior seasons.

Even though he was listed as a free safety for the Ducks, his statistics look like those of a strong safety.

“He has three career interceptions and obviously we would like our safeties to have more than that,” Heckert said. “(Oregon) did use him in the box quite a bit, so he had fewer opportunities to do that. But I think the more he plays as a true center fielder or half-safety, I think he will get more comfortable doing that.”

During a conference call, Ward was asked which two safeties he’d pick to watch tape on and model himself after.

“If I had to pick two, I think I’d study Jack Tatum and Troy Polamalu,” he said.

Polamalu has been terrorizing the Browns two times a season for years and Ward said he hopes to be Cleveland’s answer to the wild-haired star, but the mention of former Ohio State star Tatum, who starred for the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s, was a bit of a surprise.

“I’m from the Bay Area, so I’ve watched a couple of his reels and my dad talks about him a lot,” Ward said. “He said that he modeled his game after Jack Tatum. Just the way he played with the take-no-prisoner mentality and hit everything moving … that’s kind of how I like to go about my business on the field.”

The big hits should earn him fans in Cleveland quickly, but Browns die-hards will love Ward’s eagerness to become engrossed in the franchise’s rich history.

“Just having a Hall of Fame pro like Jim Brown say my name (during the official selection), was pretty wonderful,” he said. “I’m not too familiar with the Browns’ rivalries, but I’m sure I’ll get into it as soon as I get there. I’m pretty passionate about the history of any team I’m on and as soon as I get on the team, then their history will be mine and whatever rivalry they have, I’ll be a part of that as well.”

Contact Shaun Bennett at (440) 329-7137 or sbennett@chroniclet.com.