April 13, 2013 11:14:23 PM
OXFORD -- Channing Ward spent 15 spring practices with the University of Mississippi football team learning the difference between being an athletic freak and playing defensive end at the Division I level.
On Saturday after the 2013 Grove Bowl, the sophomore defensive lineman from Aberdeen feels like he has figured out pieces of what it will take to play every down in the Southeastern Conference.
"I guess I got more down on the concepts of what we're doing out there with the plays and I don't have to worry about doing the wrong things anymore," Ward said. "I want to be starting because I don't know right now, but I think I had a great spring."
Ward arrived at Ole Miss last fall with high expectations given his four-star status. He, like Ole Miss fans, expected to start immediately and to be an impact player in Hugh Freeze's first season with the Rebels. In a quick reality check, Ward learned he would need time to develop his skills at Division I's highest level.
Playing both defensive end spots, Ward said Saturday he has concentrated on two fundamentals he hopes will translate into better numbers in 2013: playing faster and developing an ability to recognize faster how to use his hands coming off the snap of the ball.
"I think I worried too much about the hype and pressure of being a top recruit and let that worry me more than what I was supposed to be focusing on when I was on the field," Ward said. "Everybody is good in college, and I wasn't picking it up fast enough to make the plays needed."
In Class 3A football in the state of Mississippi, Ward was able to overpower anybody in front of him, which made it difficult to project how his skills would translate to the next level. He earned first-team Class 3A All-State honors from the Mississippi Association of Coaches as a junior and senior, and was named defensive player of the year as a junior. He had 119 tackles and 13 quarterback sacks as a junior. When he participated in the Under Amour All-America Game against some of the nation's best high school talent, Ward had two sacks and three-and-a-half tackles for loss.
"I feel less pressure this spring, and I guess I didn't learn things as quick as others thought I might," Ward said. "I just wanted to learn, take my time, and understand what my coaches are telling me to do every day of practice. That's hard enough for anybody in the SEC."
Ward had 21 tackles and zero sacks in 12 games last season. He said he fought the pressure and anxiety of the expectations that come with being an Under Armour All-American out of Aberdeen High School.
"I was really letting it get to me that the coaches were getting on me a lot, and I just needed to keep on pushing like coach Freeze says," Ward said.
Before spring practice started in March, Freeze identified Ward as a player who needed to regain the confidence he had when he was the state's top player. In 2013, Freeze and defensive line coach Chris Kiffin are going to need Ward to prove he belongs in a rotation with C.J. Johnson, another former highly touted recruit, and Robert Nkemdiche, the top-ranked player in the 2013 recruiting class.
"We have to get to Channing (Ward) and his curve of learning should expedite in spring practice," Freeze said March 8. "I look at people like him and think that this spring ball is very important for you to put yourself in a position where you're ready to play game one at Vanderbilt on that Thursday night."
In three scrimmage sessions Saturday, Ward had three unassisted tackles and a half of a quarterback sack. Freeze and defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said after the scrimmage Ward was picking up the defensive concepts faster than his first college season.
"Maybe that's because I'm out there yelling at him every play," Freeze said with a smile. "He wants to do so well, and that makes it easier to coach, and he just wants to be confident in what he is doing."
Ward helped address some of his issues before the start of spring practice when he reportedly visited with his coaches in Wommack's office to discuss how he'd like to improve.
"Channing had a couple of issues I didn't know about that I'm not going to share that with you in the media," Wommack said. "He came in and talked to us and I think it was the last weekend, and we could certainly see a difference in him this week."
After 15 practices, Ward will be given every opportunity to prove his freshman season was a developmental year that will help him earn a starting role in the fall.
"I just think he's a high-rep guy that needs more and more snaps," Freeze said. "He needs more experience to figure things out and get better with his skills. I got no indication this spring he won't want to or continue to do just that."