Ford explodes onto scene after slow start to season

By Daniel Johnson

Illinois’ offense was expected to put up numbers the way that it has. Juice Williams was expected to show a versatility that had not ever been seen from an Illinois quarterback. Arrelious Benn was expected to garner comparisons to David Williams.

What was likely never expected was the emergence of true freshman running back Jason Ford.

But after rushing an economical 19 times for 172 yards, three for touchdowns, the conference can start expecting Illinois to utilize yet another wrinkle to its ever-diversifying offense.

“Jason got hot, we said ‘let’s leave him in there and let him go,'” head coach Ron Zook said. “You can see he runs hard, he’s physical and he’s hard to bring down.”

Ford’s running style might be described less as running at defenders than running through them. The freshman more than showcased a hard-nosed running style that was akin to Benn on receiving plays.

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“I didn’t really envision this,” Ford said. “The coaches just told me they were confident in me, and I got more comfortable in myself to keep playing the way I did. I had a really good camp, and I just wanted to bring that into the season.”

Zook said he and his staff had grown much more confident in Ford throughout last week and he was seeing more and more time with first-team offense during practice.

Confidence, it seemed, was the only thing Ford was lacking in the early going of the season.

The back said he was running “like a robot” during the first half, and wasn’t working with the blocking schemes that were being set up for him as well as he should have. It took an above-average Camp Rantoul and a steady body of work in practice during the first half for the coaches, and Ford, to realize his potential.

“It’s what he’s done over the course of the season,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “He’s obviously been the guy we’ve gone to in short yardage situations from day one. We’ve been pleased with his progression, as we have with most of the freshman.

He’s hitting that point in the midyear where he understands what it takes to play at this level.”

Another possible factor in the breakout performance was Ford’s time spent conditioning his body during the first half of the season.

After playing in high school at 220 pounds, Ford reported to Camp Rantoul at 235 pounds, but he is now back to 222 pounds. The weight gain, and subsequent loss, was something Ford accredits to “just being lazy in the weight room” early on in his Illini career.

The most interesting, and amusing, result of the game for Zook was that Ford, typically a reserved speaker, would be dealing with a swath of interviews.

“I’d be interested to watch his interview with you, anyone that talks to him,” Zook said with a smirk. “He doesn’t say anything.”

Ford’s newfound time in the lime light was much less about timidity as it was something novel to him.

The back was collected and composed when answering questions about his game – something he may need to become more acclimated with in the future.

“I just felt really good in practice, the coaches said this could be my breakout game, and I just wanted to play hard and show them I could be a good running back,” Ford said.

Illinois’ newest breakout star is the fourth back on the team with at least 100 yards rushing, and his three scores tied him with Juice Williams for a team-leading five rushing touchdowns.

Ford’s game, albeit an unexpected occurrence for the offense, is something the coaching staff obviously doesn’t mind. Locksley just needs to find a place for his newest offensive weapon.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” he said.