This isn’t the first time Jimmie Ward’s coaches wondered whether his best position was cornerback rather than safety.
When Ward, whom the 49ers list ambiguously as “defensive back,” was a freshman at Northern Illinois in 2010, he went through his first practices as a cornerback.
“It was probably about a 10-day period of fall camp,” said Jay Sawvel, a defensive backs coach at Northern Illinois at the time. “… And he played very, very well at corner. To the point where you were looking at some of the plays he was making and you were going, ‘This guy is really good.’ ”
The Huskies, however, had several solid upperclassmen at cornerback, and they quickly encountered several injuries at safety. So they put Ward’s position switch on hold. He spent his freshman season as a backup safety and special-teams ace. He played in all 14 games, finishing with 21 tackles, forcing one fumble and setting a school record with three blocked punts.
The plan was to move him to cornerback as a sophomore. But Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill was hired by Minnesota and he took Sawvel, now Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, and other assistants with him.
“As it happened, we moved on and the new staff came in and they kept him where he was,” Sawvel said.
I know he’s one of our best 11. That I do know. So we’re trying to find ways to get our best 11 on the field. So far, what he has shown out on the practice field – I’m confident that he could do it out there.
49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil on Jimmie Ward
Six years later, the move is afoot again.
Ward, who spent his first two seasons with the 49ers as a nickel back and backup safety, has been lining up at right cornerback during recent practices. It’s only June, and the team still is in trial mode. But the experiment involving Ward seems to be going well.
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said his goal this spring is to identify the 49ers’ top defensive players, and he made it clear Ward is in that category.
“I know he’s one of our best 11. That I do know,” O’Neil said last week. “So we’re trying to find ways to get our best 11 on the field. So far, what he has shown out on the practice field – I’m confident that he could do it out there.”
Ward played 64.2 percent of the defensive snaps last year as the nickel back. If he played right cornerback – Tramaine Brock would be his counterpart on the left – he would play every snap if he stays healthy.
Ward said he’s focusing on his footwork and press-coverage techniques. He said there’s less thinking at cornerback than safety, and he seemed fine with the potential switch.
“As long as I’m on the field, I’m good,” he said.
At Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala., the coaches wanted their best athletes at safety, which is why they paired Ward and 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt there in 2009. In college, however, players who are shorter than 6 feet and weigh less than 200 pounds – Ward is 5-11 and 192 pounds – often are moved to cornerback.
Jimmie has great ball skills, he has great instincts and he’s got great physical ability. And he’s extremely competitive. So all the traits necessary to be a really good corner – he’s possessed them since he was in high school.
Jay Sawvel, Ward’s defensive backs coach at Northern Illinois
His first coaches at Northern Illinois noted he had long arms for press coverage and could swivel his hips to shadow wide receivers down the field.
“Jimmie has great ball skills, he has great instincts and he’s got great physical ability,” Sawvel said. “And he’s extremely competitive. So all the traits necessary to be a really good corner – he’s possessed them since he was in high school.”
Still, Sawvel wondered if his instincts about Ward were wrong. Ward played most of his college career as a safety and was a first-round draft pick as a safety.
With the 49ers contemplating the same switch he once envisioned, Sawvel laughed and said it was a bit of a relief.
“That’s not an off-base move. At all,” he said. “That’s a legitimate move that he can do and function at very well.”