Top prospect ends long journey, lands at USF

Mike Ford gained 2,836 yards and had 37 touchdowns at Sarasota High in 2004.

Published January 13, 2007

TAMPA - It's only one player, but his impact could make 2007 a big year for USF football.

The Bulls got the huge news they had hoped for Friday when Mike Ford, one of the nation's top high school running backs out of Sarasota two years ago, was cleared by the NCAA and accepted into USF for spring classes.

"He might be their best recruit ever," said Jamie Newberg, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. "I used to say USF was a quarterback away from something big, and now I'd say they're a running back away. They may have just gotten that."

Ford, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound prospect who rushed for 2,836 yards and 37 touchdowns at Sarasota High in 2004, could take USF to another level, his high school coach said.

"I'd hate to be a defensive back in the Big East trying to make a tackle on the kid," Sailors coach Bob Perkins said. "His speed, his size, his power, it's a scary combination."

Ford couldn't be reached for comment, but last week he spoke about his desire to play at USF, where his cousin, receiver Amarri Jackson, will be a senior in the fall. Ford liked the idea of playing close enough that his mother, Dondra Walker, could attend all of his home games.

"I'm excited," he said. "I want to do big things at South Florida."

For Ford, it has been a long road. He signed with Alabama in 2005, but did not qualify academically and spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.

While there, he was clocked with a 40-yard time of 4.4 seconds, along with a vertical leap of 37 inches, and Rivals.com ranked him the No. 4 prep school prospect in the nation.

He improved his entrance exam scores, waited for NCAA clearance and took classes this fall at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi. He intended on enrolling at Alabama this month, but changed his mind after coach Mike Shula was fired.

Ford's enrollment ended a week of uncertainty; he had publicly stated his interest in attending USF, but Friday was the last day students could enroll for spring classes.

"You have to take your hat off to the kid, for how hard he worked to get there," said Perkins, who saw Ford rush for a school-record 368 yards in a playoff game. "Most kids would have given up, but sometimes you take the road less traveled. What he has now, he knows he had to work to get where he is."

Ford will attend his first team meeting today and his first classes early next week. Coach Jim Leavitt declined to comment on Ford until he had started classes, to avoid any potential NCAA violations.

The Bulls went 9-4 last season, earning their first bowl victory in December, despite never finding a consistent threat at running back.

Sophomore Ricky Ponton and walk-on Ben Williams each had 100-yard rushing efforts, and USF also expects to get back freshman Moise Plancher, who was lost for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon after starting in the first game.

Ford will have spring practice to prove himself, then four years to show what he can do on the field.

"He can be an every-down back," Perkins said. "We knew he was a special player, and to see what he's done to get himself into college, it's phenomenal."

UHATAFE LEAVING, WITH DEGREE: Junior defensive tackle Siaosi Uhatafe, a Gibbs graduate who had three tackles while playing in six games last season, will graduate in May with a communications degree and not return for his final year of eligibility, coach Jim Leavitt said.

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3346.