North grad Ward earns spot on Georgia Southern roster

Special Photo North Gwinnett grad Jeff Ward has worked his way onto Georgia Southern football roster.

Special Photo North Gwinnett grad Jeff Ward has worked his way onto Georgia Southern football roster.

SUWANEE -- With no scholarship offers out of high school and only a vague promise of a walk-on opportunity, Jeff Ward's chances at playing college football seemed pretty slim when he got to Georgia Southern last summer.

A year later, the 2011 North Gwinnett grad and former Bulldog offensive lineman's dream is very much alive, and a step closer to reality.

It's a relatively small step -- a spot as a preferred walk-on in the perennial Division I-AA (FCS) powerhouse program.

But there are two things he has now that he didn't have this time last year.

One is an official spot on the Eagles' roster. The other is tangible evidence of it.

"I was No. 111. I didn't even have a (uniform) number," joked the redshirt freshman, who is now listed as No. 53 on the roster posted on Georgia Southern's official website. "Spring (practice) was basically a tryout for me to get on the roster. ... I was told after we got assessed (by the coaching staff) after spring practice that I'd be on the (fall) roster.

"I knew going into (spring practice) I could be a guy who if someone got hurt or an opening happened, I could get on the (depth chart) board. ... To hear it from (Georgia Southern offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Brent Davis) was great."

Ward's opportunity came during the first week of Georgia Southern's spring practice in late March, when Peachtree Ridge grad Trevor McBurnett, the Eagles' projected starter at right guard, suffered an ankle injury, allowing Ward to move up to No. 2 on the depth chart.

While McBurnett is expected to be back at full strength by the time preseason practice begins next month, the reps Ward got was enough to convince the coaching staff he could contribute more to the program than just being a member of the Eagles' practice squad.

His spring practice performance also culminated a year of hard work, both athletically -- he added 15 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame to bring his weight up to 255 pounds -- and in the classroom, where the criminal justice major posted a 4.0 grade point average during the spring semester.

Ward's ascension from the practice squad to the full-fledged roster sounds a lot like that of famed Notre Dame walk-on Daniel Ruettiger, whose story inspired the motion picture "Rudy."

However, Ward says his hard work was fueled by not only his own ambition and passion for football, but also a source higher than Hollywood.

"I get my inspiration from my faith, not a movie," Ward said. "I came down here to work hard and down the road, I knew I could be a helpful asset to Georgia Southern. I just needed a year to catch up (physically)."

Still, there is plenty of work left in front of Ward for him to improve his situation at Georgia Southern even further.

The first goal on his agenda is to be one of a few walk-ons to work their way on to the Eagles' travel squad for road games, and then, who knows?

"I'm going to have to earn that during (preseason) camp," Ward said about his chances of making the Eagles' travel squad. "They decide the travel team after camp."