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Ward learning on the fly

South Dakota State University's Xavier Ward (67) fights to get off the block as Duquesne's Matt Fitzpatrick (57) blocks and A.J. Hines (32) carries the ball on Aug. 31 at Dana J. Dykhouse in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

BROOKINGS—Xavier Ward has been thrown in the fire.

The South Dakota State University true freshman defensive tackle had his redshirt pulled early in fall camp and is now seeing valuable time for the Jackrabbits, who host Northern Iowa at 2 p.m. on Saturday in the FCS playoffs.

"I remember my first day of practice, I fell down more times than I actually succeeded," said Ward, who is a Freeman native and a Canistota graduate. "It has just been a big change and I have learned a lot."

Ward plays between 15 and 25 snaps per game, has recorded seven tackles (two tackles for loss) and has played in all 11 games for SDSU (9-2).

But more importantly, he's taking everything in stride and is learning with every snap.

"You just need reps to get better," Ward said. "I really realized that so I have been working hard and ever since I got my redshirted pulled, it's just been a big change. You just have to grow up faster. You have to be more responsible and you have a big part in the team."

The 6-foot-2, 270-pound Ward went from the biggest player on the field when he played for the Canistota Hawks, to now going against players just as big or bigger than him.

"It's a challenge, I am not going to lie. It is not easy," Ward said. "I am realizing that these guys are just as good. You will get beat sometimes, but it's how you react. So you just have to keep moving. I feel like I am taking every opportunity I can get, taking advantage of them and being the best I can be."

He's also benefitting from those around him. Ward credits SDSU defensive line coach Christian Smith and senior defensive tackle Kellen Soulek for helping in his first-year transition. Ward and Soulek actually grew up together in Freeman, with Soulek even babysitting Ward.

The senior defensive tackle is now watching over Ward again at SDSU.

"He's just kind of been a big help with showing me the ropes and how things go," Ward said. "Watching him and seeing him how he does stuff, just helps me get along through the practice and get better."

Since the last UNI game, the Jacks have gotten better and have not lost a game since the 38-18 Hobo Day defeat. Ward and the defense have done their part to complement the highly-publicized offense in the past five games.

"We have everyone making plays and ever since the last UNI game, we have been stepping up," Ward said. "I don't know what it was, but we are getting to where we should play. We are playing to our full potential."