Ford stands out against Hoosiers



By Daniel Johnson

Jason Ford’s 172-yard performance last Saturday wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Rashard Mendenhall.

The freshman from Belleville, Ill., didn’t commit to Illinois until Thanksgiving during his senior year, after seeing Illinois lose to Michigan and speaking with Mendenhall.

“I thought Mendenhall was coming back, and I didn’t think that I had a chance to play,” Ford said. “And I knew that (Iowa) was losing two senior running backs, so I’d have a good chance to play.”

Ford was committed and ready to go to Iowa until he heard from the top running back at his first-choice university. Mendenhall said he might be leaving for the NFL; shortly before that conversation, Ford had taken a forgettable trip to Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.

“He just said that he had heard he could be a first-round draft pick and there was a good chance that he could go,” Ford said.

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“He said, if he got the opportunity, he was going to take it. I had seen that they had him top-five, top-four, top-three running back. He told me that wherever I felt comfortable, I should take advantage.”

With that knowledge in hand, the back reopened his college search in the fall of 2007 and headed to Champaign.

“I didn’t have fun, the game wasn’t really exciting when I visited Iowa,” Ford said. “When I came to see the Michigan game it was really exciting, I really liked it, and it just felt really like I was at home.”

It didn’t matter to Ford that the Illini lost the game after a crucial muffed punt stifled any Illinois momentum late in the game; he still wanted to be an Illini.

“Illinois was always my top school, and they didn’t drop any when they lost, I still liked them,” Ford said. “It just reassured me that I was making the right choice.”

Ford’s choice paid off, and he got what he wanted last Saturday against Indiana – a chance to play and assert his talent in his freshman year. His 172 yards were the second-most by a freshman in school history, second to Rocky Harvey’s 215 yards against Middle Tennessee in 1998.

Ford’s three touchdowns by a back were the most since Mendenhall’s three-score performance against Syracuse last year.

When asked to compare himself to another running back, the normally reserved Ford cracked a rare smile and laughed – as if he’s becoming more comfortable with his abilities with every practice.

“A lot of people compare me to Maurice Jones-Drew of the (Jacksonville) Jaguars,” Ford said. “I don’t know, I think it’s kind of funny, people say I look like him and run like him.”

Ford, who was a lineman growing up, appreciates blocking and Jones-Drew’s ability to do it well. His coaches, namely running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, appreciate Ford’s ability to run, contribute to the passing game through blocking and his overall progression.

“I had the privilege of coaching (current Seattle Seahawk running back) T.J. Duckett, and his learning curve early on at Michigan State was similar to Jason’s and Mikel (LeShoure’s),” Mitchell said. “These guys, where they’re at with our offense, I think they’re ahead of the scale. Being able to play in the game, they’re ahead of T.J.”

Honorable Mention

Laura DeBrulerVolleyball

The sophomore helped the Illini defeat the then-No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers in three sets on Sunday. DeBruler had a match-high 14 kills and hit .474.

Tom Connell Hockey

The junior forward had three goals last weekend in the Illini’s two-game sweep of Ohio State. Connell followed up his hat trick against Kent State with another strong weekend to put Illinois at 8-0-0 on the season.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes are evaluated by individual performance, contribution to team success and personal achievement.