Slimmer, faster Ford looks to reach full potential in senior season

Just because he’s entering his fourth and final year at Illinois doesn’t mean Jason Ford isn’t still earning himself new nicknames. His newest one comes courtesy of head coach Ron Zook himself — Big Sexy.

“That’s just coach,” senior tackle Jeff Allen said. “I don’t get into that Big Sexy thing.”

Popular or not, the first half of the nickname is certainly apt, considering Ford is listed at 6-foot and 235 pounds. And while the moniker may not have caught on just yet, if Ford has the season some think he is capable of as Illinois’ new featured back, it may spread like wildfire before season’s end.

“I just want to see if we can get the running game going with Jason and just see if we can break some records,” Allen said.

The road Ford has taken from one of the top players in Illinois coming out of high school to now is not what many would expect. The Belleville, Ill., native has had modest success in his three years at Illinois, racking up 1,362 yards and 19 touchdowns on 277 carries. But despite those numbers, coaches have always expected more from Ford.

One issue in the past has been weight. While Ford has built a reputation as a punishing runner, much in the style of Jerome Bettis, his bulky body has kept him from reaching his full potential in the eyes of coaches and fans alike. Nagging injuries over the past two seasons have also kept Ford from playing as much as he otherwise would have.

Coming into this season, though, Ford says he is fully healthy for the first time in a while.

“Last year I was just kind of nicked up, just coming into spring ball and into camp a little bit,” Ford said. “This year I feel 100 percent. I made it through all the conditioning and things like that healthy, and I think that’s helped me out a lot.”

Zook said this is one of the first times he can remember having a healthy Jason Ford ready to go for the start of the season.

“I think this is the first time in at least two years, but I think three years, where he’s come back to campus healthy,” Zook said. “He’s faster. He’s stronger. I saw him make some moves in Rantoul that I haven’t seen him make since he was a freshman.”

One of the other key factors in Ford’s renaissance has been his reduction in weight. After being listed by the team at 235 pounds and actually weighing closer to 245, Ford says he has now trimmed down all the way to 230 pounds, something that has made his coach very proud.

“We’ve all been on him for three years now,” Zook said. “But he’s a big-boned guy, just a big guy, and we finally said ‘OK, let’s get off the weight thing and talk about body fat.’ And he was a single digit (body fat percentage) when we went to Rantoul.”

Zook isn’t the only one taking notice of Ford’s new slimmer physique, though.

“You can see the difference,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “He’s in a lot better shape, can go a lot more plays in a row, which will help. He’s done the right things this offseason to make way for a great season, and I think he’ll have one.”

Just because he’s a lower weight doesn’t mean Ford isn’t going to change his style. He said he still plans on being the physical running back who pounds the defense carry after carry.

“I just want to play smash-mouth football and be that power guy that opens things up for the passing game,” Ford said.

Speaking as someone who has experienced Ford’s punishment firsthand in practice, defensive end Whitney Mercilus said he definitely dishes out just as much punishment as he takes over the course of a game.

“He gets low, very low. Last year, he actually injured a few defensive players, which is what you want your back to do actually,” Mercilus said. “It makes you wanna scratch your head a little bit, like ‘How am I going to get him down?’”

It’s that combination of size and speed, the mixture that Ford has been seeking for nearly three years, that could make him one of the most important cogs in this Illini offense.

“You’ve got to be able to run the football,” Zook said. “The better he runs the football, the better our running attack is, the better the offense is going to be … I don’t wanna say it’s all on his back, but since we’ve been here we’ve always felt like running the football is very, very important, and you always like to have a good running back.”