Hines Ward's era of rotating positions has ended.
The Pittsburgh Steelers don't bother to list Ward as a quarterback candidate. The former University of Georgia multi-talented standout who completed 71-of-120 passes for 918 yards as a Bulldog won't be behind center in the NFL.
Despite the Steelers coaching staff's apprehensions, Ward still considers his arm a weapon.
"My quarterback days are over," Ward said. "I've still got it in me, though."
At Georgia, Ward nearly became the first Division I athlete to complete an elusive trifecta. In addition to his passing exploits, Ward also rushed for 1,063 yards and made 144 receptions for 1,956 yards. He finished second on the Bulldogs' all-purpose list with 3,870 yards.
Ward enters tonight's NFL opener against the reborn Cleveland Browns as a starting wide receiver. Following the 1998 season, in which he was primarily used on special teams, Ward is finally able to concentrate on one position.
The 6-foot, 197-pound wideout has used the preseason to develop chemistry with fifth-year quarterback Kordell Stewart. Ward takes advantage of having his locker adjoined to Stewart's. Advice and encouragement flow from Stewart, who was labeled "Slash" for his versatility.
"Kordell has been real helpful to me," Ward said. "He's always talking with me. I'm getting better each day and getting confidence."
Willing to do anything to get in the game, Ward accepted his assignments on special teams. His tenacity was rewarded this year, and his five preseason catches for 91 yards are testament to his evolution into an NFL receiver.
Although he has earned the starting job, he hasn't become complacent.
"There are no guarantees," Ward said. "Getting the continuity out there with those guys will really help me out."
Steelers wide receivers coach Bob Bratkowski attributed Ward's success to his persistence. Ward made 15 catches for 246 yards in 1998 in addition to his 14 special team's tackles, which tied him for second in the NFL.
"He's a playmaker," Bratkowski said. "Things happen good for him. He's real smart and a very strong player."
"He's a great competitor. He finds a way to get things accomplished. You can't necessarily put your finger on how he does things; he just gets them done."
While he may not take a snap, the possibility of him putting the ball in the air still exists. It may involve trickery, however. Last year against Kansas City, Ward flipped a halfback pass to Stewart for a 17-yard gain.
Ward has no regrets from his season as special-teams assassin. He savored every opportunity to get on the field.
"I had to understand my role," Ward said. "I wasn't getting in much on the offensive side. Last year, getting to play on special teams was a big honor for me, even though I didn't know how to do it."
Jimmy DeButts at (706) 823-3216
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