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Trail of Talent: D.J. Ward

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With more and more Sooner fans wanting to know more about the players that will soon take to Owen Field there is always an element of bewilderment for some when a young high school prospect pledges his future to the Sooners with a verbal commitment.
'Who is this kid, is he a big deal?'
For long-time SoonerScoop.com readers the terms 'star ranking', 'Rivals100' or 'early offers' are accepted parts of the vernacular. For those just acquainting themselves with the recruiting chaos of Rivals.com and, in particular, SoonerScoop.com we offer you 'Trail of Talent' a brief guide to give you an idea just what Oklahoma's most recent commitment means to the Sooner coaches and program.
Long-time members of SoonerScoop.com are more than familiar with Lawton, Okla. Rivals100 defensive end D.J. Ward. The nation's No. 99 overall prospect emerged onto the scene when we first made the trek down I-44 to the ever-talented Oklahoma hotbed when Ward was just finishing his freshman year for the Wolverines.
It didn't take long to figure out that the, then, 6-foot-3, 225-pound edge player was just some rough clay of the player he could become. But the biggest problem in evaluating a player so young isn't generally identifying talent. The question becomes, will he put in the work to realize that talent?
For Ward, his skillset is certainly what caught the eye of so many early on but even at that absurdly early point most on the Lawton coaching staff knew they had something unique.
"In the spring we get our freshman for a period and they come in and work out with us," Lawton assistant Ryan Breeze said in May of 2010. "Well we also have workouts after school and the freshman can come if they want to but it's not required. Well D.J. always came in and one day I saw him leave and realized he was going to the practice field with his brother and taking a few of his classmates with him.
"They were doing even more beyond the two workouts. That's just the kind of kid he is, we don't have to stay on him about working hard like most freshman, he just does it naturally."
Even more naturally than the hardest of workers as the, now, 6-foot-4, 245-pound prospect learned the proper work ethic from an older brother who also shined for Lawton.
"His brother played here several years ago and then went to the Naval academy, and that rubs off, D.J. is a good kid who takes coaching well and does the things we ask," he said.
It was apparent early on that Ward was going to be a national recruit with many major programs joining the Scoop's staff fascination and mailing him months before he would ever start a game for Lawton. However one school that was a bit more cautious with the product of a town that has long been a Sooner homebase was, in fact, Oklahoma.
In fact on April 18, 2011 - just four days shy of a year prior to his commitment - Sooners fans were worried that Oklahoma had blown their chance of landing a player that had already been pegged as the state's top prospect in the class of 2013. The concern stemmed from Ward getting little attention while attending last year's Red-White game, a game that he wasn't sure he was even formally invited to by the Oklahoma staff.
"I liked it, you know I wasn't in the right spot. It was just me and my mom there," Ward explained at the time. "I was watching the defensive ends real close, I was trying to pick up some things on what they were doing and I like how they do things."
But in an ongoing theme of Ward's recruitment he simply continued to focus on himself as a player rather than worrying about the lack of 'love' at that point in time.
And though almost immediately following the spring game the Sooners relationship with the elite sophomore Ward still scoffed a bit at the idea that he wasn't given enough attention. Interestingly he talked about how the hype surrounding him as just a sophomore wasn't something he felt was deserved so much as something he needed to try and live up to.
"I guess I had a good (sophomore) year. Not that I've lived up to the hype (yet) but I think next year I should be what I was predicted to be," he admitted in April of sophomore year.
And to reach that goal Ward found a workout partner that exceeded what most high school prospects would consider, much less choose to do.
"There was this guy that went to Army and is now down here, he has a son and he is going to play for the Dallas Cowboys and my dad go to talking to him about me and he wants to work out with me this Summer," Ward said. "We're just going to be working out and trying to get my weight up some."
Just a little over a month later SCOOP HD made one of it's first trips and got down to see the talented defensive end take part in spring practice. Knowing that eyes were on him Ward played through a stomach illness that had his coaches more than willing to excuse him from practice.
"We can't hardly keep that kid off the field," one Lawton assistant said on May 24.
Just days later Oklahoma defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright made the same trip down I-44 that the Scoop staff had a year earlier and extended an offer to Ward that made him Oklahoma's earliest in-state offer in memory. That following fall Ward and Oklahoma's relationship really seemed to be heating up after Ward had spent much of his time denying much real favoritism toward any particular program.
"I felt like I was a priority right when I got up there," Ward said following his visit for Oklahoma's Sept. 3 win over Tulsa.
"I didn't really get to talk to a lot of the players - they were all pretty busy. But I did get to talk to a couple of the coaches, coach (Bob) Stoops, coach (Cale) Gundy, and coach Wright. Really almost everybody on the staff."
However, in Ward's recruitment it was rarely an abundance of attention nor the glitz and glamour of a particular recruiting tact that caught his eye. In fact it was an aspect that so many Sooner recruits fail to acknowledge while on campus that he mentioned to 'The Sooner Scoop'.
"Just that they are really, really traditionally great. And it's a big part of the school and things like that. I've never thought what a big part of the community Oklahoma football is - it's impressive," Ward said.
After a junior season in which in the face of never-ending double-teams and the occasional triple team Ward accumulated 11 sacks he was named SoonerScoop.com's Junior of the Year and it seemed that the Sooners might be ready to build out a second straight year of keeping the state's top prospect in Norman. However, Oklahoma's oldest rivals, and the one team who has seen some success pulling Oklahoma's best out of the Sooner state, Texas, became involved and invited Ward to both of their February junior day events.
"Oklahoma and Texas, those two I was definitely wanting to, I was definitely trying to go to," Ward said on Feb. 26. "I've been trying to get my parents to try and get up there, I'm definitely trying to be at Oklahoma and Texas at their junior days. I'm trying to get to those.
Concerns were already at an all-time high for Sooner fans in regard to landing Ward's future commitment when he had to pull a last minute cancellation of his planned Feb. 4 junior day trip due to a family emergency.
"It's just been tough getting it worked out with my parents. It's work, my dad, his job, there is a whole bunch of stuff going on so it's just been tough so far," he said.
However, as time wore on there was one campus that Ward continued to show up on time and time again - Oklahoma's. When he did make his trip to Norman for the March 3 junior day things started to come together for Oklahoma and it seemed that the commitment clock had started to tick.
"He came back to Lawton and was talking about committing, it was clearly something he was starting to get serious about," one Lawton assistant coach said a few days after his return.
So when he admitted he planned to return to Norman for the April 14 spring game people started wondering if the timing might be coming together. But in typical Oklahoma luck with in-state recruits, tornadic weather conditions were bearing down on Norman and it seemed certain the trip would have to be canceled. However, neither the Sooners or Ward flinched and the game went off as planned.
Though many planned visitors elected to stay home Ward attended the game, and afterward, in the presence of 2013 defensive end commitment Matt Dimon, Ward made his commitment to Bob Stoops after the completion of the game.
While some might have been worried about future competition, Dimon couldn't keep the secret to himself, texting the SoonerScoop.com staff.
"Want a juicy secret? D.J. Ward just committed to Oklahoma," Dimon gushed.
So just under a year after Sooner fans had thought they'd done irreparable damage in the pursuit of a player who wasn't yet done with his sophomore season of football, and a month shy of two years since SoonerScoop's staff first saw him - Ward chose to become a Sooner. However, even if there were hiccups and concerns from the start to finish for most recruiting fans it's the chase that keeps their attention.