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Picking up yards, and game
Bulls RB Ford is coming on, with talent still untapped.
By GREG AUMAN
Published November 23, 2007
[Ted McLaren | Times]
USF freshman Mike Ford has gained 274 yards in the past two games. Coaches say he'll get better.
TAMPA - He had three touchdowns in his first college game, but only in the last two weeks have Bulls fans truly come to appreciate what Mike Ford can do.
He has rushed for 274 yards and four touchdowns in helping USF end a three-game skid and rebound with two dominating victories.
And coaches say he's just getting started.
"He's still got a ways to go," offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said. "We sit there and watch the tape, and he'll make some great runs, then run right into the back of somebody. He's still got to work on his pass protection, but that's the last thing any back picks up. He's a good player."
The 6-foot-2, 221-pound freshman from Sarasota is on pace to break Rafael Williams' 1997 freshman rushing record of 729 yards, and he's reset the freshman mark with 10 rushing touchdowns.
For Ford, success running the football is about finding a rhythm, not only with repeated carries in a game, but in repeated games after a layoff of nearly two years without playing football. "The more carries I get, the more of a rhythm I get, finding blocks and finding reads," Ford said. "The more playing time you get, the more reps you get in practice, the better your game gets."
He's been a reluctant star, hesitant to do interviews after being patient through two months of limited carries. He deflects praise to his offensive line.
"His time has been coming. He's been waiting patiently, and he finally got a break," tackle Marc Dile said. "Mike has that ability to keep going forward. He sees the holes, reads the cutbacks and goes."
With junior Ben Williams limited by ankle injury, USF's top three running backs have been freshmen, in Ford, Aston Samuels and Jamar Taylor.
"Those guys have a chance to be pretty special in the years to come if they stay focused on school and do the right things," coach Jim Leavitt said.
Leavitt said fans forget that they're only freshmen, trying to pick up the nuances of a new offensive system while adjusting to their first fall on campus.
Running backs coach Carl Franks said Ford is still making the transition to the college game.
"It's a matter of learning an offensive system, getting used to the speed of the game again," Franks said. "It took a little bit of time to get back into the flow of things."
Take Saturday, when Ford opened the game with runs of 43 and 23 yards, finishing that first drive with a 6-yard touchdown, but was largely held in check the rest of the way. Of his next 21 carries, 14 went for 3 yards or less, and only three resulted in first downs. Having said that, the Ford run was USF's first-down play of choice Saturday - he carried 18 times on first and 10, getting all but 19 of his yards on first down.
Ford's emergence has taken some of the rushing load off sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe, the team's rushing leader with 765 yards. But while Grothe averaged 22 carries in the team's three losses, he's averaged only 13 in the last two wins.
"The biggest thing is my body doesn't feel as tired or sore the next couple of days after," Grothe said. "It's nice because it opens up our offense so much more. When Carlton Mitchell caught that touchdown pass (against Louisville), he was wide open because it was a play-action pass."
Ford has smartly listened to his veteran linemen, such as senior tackle Walt Walker, who had noticed a tendency in Louisville's defensive line and how Ford could exploit it.
"Us and the running backs, we talk to each other," Walker said. "I said, 'You know, that three-technique (defensive tackle) is going to try to stay in that gap, and I'll just run him by and you can cut right back.' After he had that big run, he came back and said, 'Hey, there it is.' "
Ford is used to carrying the load - as a senior at Sarasota, he rushed for more than 200 yards in 11 straight games, matching a state record. Franks said Ford's knack for positive yardage starts with a good forward lean, keeping his upper body ahead of his legs as he runs. At 6-2, he's four inches taller than USF's next four running backs, and uses his size to his advantage.
"He's learned to run with his pads out in front of him a lot more," Franks said. "The taller you are, the harder it is to have your pads underneath people who are getting ready to hit you."
Just as impressive, Ford has shined in the classroom. The same player who failed to meet NCAA eligibility requirements out of high school is carrying a 3.0 grade-point average this semester.
And the year Ford spent in Virginia at Hargrave Military Academy, running in snow, will benefit him Saturday, as the Bulls play in 40-degree weather in Pittsburgh.
"Snow, I love it. It doesn't slow me down one bit," he said. "I did pretty good. A hundred and something (yards), on like seven carries."