Oklahoma defensive end D.J. Ward works during football practice Thursday at the OU rugby fields. Ward's journey through Norman has lacked rhythm, but with a defensive alignment that favors his style in his senior year, his role is more important than ever.

CNHI PHOTO/Kyle Phillips

NORMAN — D.J. Ward would look down at the ground and there would be a chunk of his hair. Another victim of a hard-knock play at practice.

He began growing his signature dreadlocks in high school. They eventually hung below his shoulder blades.

By July, he'd had enough.

“It was like, it was just time to go,” Ward said.

He had them snipped off.

“One, it didn’t fit with the helmet and (got) pulled on every practice. And maturity, you know. I got to do the long hair. Always had short hair my whole life, finally could grow it out, but now it’s time to go back to clean-cut, be more serious,” he said.

Ward has always been a quiet and serious type. As redshirt senior focusing on a critical role at defensive end, as Oklahoma integrates a 4-3 front back into its scheme, he says that won’t change.

That hair, though, was his traveling partner during a football journey that has been fraught with starts and stops.

Ward didn’t play his high school senior season after transferring from Lawton High to Douglass, then Southmoore, before eventually being denied a hardship waiver by the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association.

As an OU freshman in 2013, he had his spleen removed during the preseason, forcing him to redshirt. When he returned, the Sooners had changed defensive schemes, moving from the 4-3 his more svelte body type was suited for to a 3-4.

The final chapter of Ward’s story, like his hair length, is resetting.

With the Sooner defense rededicating to a 4-3, he’ll be counted on to win more one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage. On the light side at 6-2, 260 pounds, he’s more physically equipped for that job than plugging running gaps.

“You’re looking at a guy who is 260 pounds-plus playing head-up (in the past),” defensive ends coach Calvin Thibodeaux said. “That’s not really what he’s made to do. Playing on the edge has certainly helped him.”

Ward’s mobility was on full display in Thursday’s practice during a drill requiring defensive ends to side-step over three padded bags, absorb contact from Thibodeaux, then race around a hoop before swiping a towel off the ground.

Ward is capable of playing in both alignments because he owns one of the OU defensive line’s longest wingspans, but is still soaking in some aspects during the transition.

“I’ve just gotta learn how to play fast and play on the fly,” Ward said. “Sometimes things get hectic when you start going tempo. So, just gotta learn how to play through that.”

His reach will serve him especially well in the 4-3, which ideally will help increase OU’s deflections at the line of scrimmage. Sooner linemen batted down 10 passes last season, but four came from defensive end Charles Walker, who left the team midseason to focus on NFL draft preparations.

“We hope [deflections increase],” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “Closing pockets, getting hands up, that’s important, too. You’ve got to be able to close the pocket. That’s a big emphasis.”

Anything coaches emphasize to Ward is relayed to young defensive ends Addison Gumbs and Mark Jackson. Despite Ward’s quiet nature, he hasn’t been shy about leading others at a position where OU is searching for depth.

Much of that instruction is delivered while the defensive line enjoys increased time in the film room, an added benefit of Thibodeaux splitting defensive line duties with Ruffin McNeill, who was hired to coach defensive tackles in the offseason.

“[Ward] doesn’t just know his position, he knows what everybody’s doing,” Thibodeaux said.

Ward, who is on his third defensive line coach at OU, has been around the block. Spend a few minutes with him and it’s evident.

“I mean, you can tell he’s been through a lot. He doesn’t get too rattled. … He’s just had a great disposition,” Stoops said.

Those challenges he went through since coming to Norman in 2013, Ward maintains, weren’t anything out of the ordinary.

“To me, it was a stepping stone. It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I just kept on chipping away and here I am today.”

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