About an hour into his first practice as a 49er in July, rookie defensive back Jimmie Ward intercepted a pass from Colin Kaepernick.
Playing as the nickel cornerback – the position he’s expected to win during this training camp – Ward swooped in to grab a ball that had been deflected by Chris Cook in 7-on-7 drills.
Ever since that day, Ward has seemed to mostly be in the right place at the right time.
Now, he’s ready for perhaps his best test against the Denver Broncos Sunday in exhibition game No. 2 in the team's first game at Levi’s Stadium.
The rookie from Northern Illinois will get the call as the No. 1 nickel corner, a position surely to come under fire from veteran quarterback Peyton Manning, who often works with three-receiver sets. Though offenses don’t like to show any new wrinkles during summer games, Ward is excited to be matched up against Manning and his terrific veteran slot receiver Wes Welker, who’s burned even the NFL’s best corners in a long career.
“I feel like it’s going to be good work and something I can study off of throughout the whole season,” Ward told Taylor Price of the team’s website this week.
Ward says he’s looking forward to trying to see what Manning is all about, too, in the limited series the Broncos QB will be on the field.
“I’m going to have to stay in the playbook, listen to my coaches and get help from my vets, too, because they’ve played against him,” Ward told Price. “I look forward to it. I think it’ll help me get better at the end of the day.”
Veterans Joe Flacco (last week), Manning, Philip Rivers and Ryan Fitzpatrick will give Ward a taste of what NFL quarterbacking is like before his first official test on Sept. 7 vs. Tony Romo and the Cowboys. In quick order after that, Ward will have to deal with Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer and Nick Foles, so his learning curve will have to be steep.
So far, however, the 49ers believe Ward is on track. The former college safety is adapting well to his nickel role. Teammates say he has an uncanny ability to make plays.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said this week that Ward had a “great learning experience” going against Flacco last week in the exhibition opener and then in joint practices with the Ravens.
The Niners are trying to give him as much exposure and reps as possible this summer, especially because an injury limited Ward’s participation in organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp.
“There’s a lot to learn there,” said Fangio, of Ward’s responsibilities in the nickel. “Basically the nickel becomes like a linebacker. He has to learn how to play zones from a linebacker’s perspective. He has to play man on a slot. He has to know his correct leverage and help where it is, et cetera. There’s a lot to learn there. So we’ve given him more than enough reps and he’s gotten a lot of reps in the practices that you guys (media) don’t even see, these walk-throughs that we have. We’re trying to get him schooled and ready to go.”
Going against Manning and Welker Sunday should be a valuable experience in his summer crash-course development.