Jason Ford was a four year standout at Belleville Althoff and produced a St. Louis metro area career yardage record while scoring 75 touchdowns. Scout rated him among the top 60 backs nationally and a member of the Midwest Hot 100 list. Since fellow rookie Mikel LeShoure enrolled last winter, Ford was behind Mikel, Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard entering fall drills.
"I just had to get used to the signals," Ford said in explaining his college development. "Everything's so fast, and I have to watch formations while looking at the signals. The first couple games, I ran like a robot, just carring out the play called. Each week I just got better and better.
"I can't say I envisioned this, but Coach said he has confidence in me. I just promised myself I would play like I did in camp. I had a real good camp, so I wanted to bring it into the season. I know I struggled the first half of the season."
Improve he did. After having more carries than yards gained through the first six games, Jason made a major splash Saturday night against visiting Indiana. Showing speed, power and determination, he piled up 172 yards in just 19 carries. His three touchdowns measured 5, 41 and 1 yards.
"The last two weeks, things have really gone well for him in practice," Zook elaborated after the game. "He's a physical runner, a hard, tough runner to bring down. We try to put guys in situations where they can do their best. Jason got hot, so I said let's leave him in there and let him go."
Like all rookies, the 6'-0", 222 pounder had to get accustomed to the speed of the college game and develop the confidence to react quickly to each circumstance. He finally took to heart what his coaches have been teaching him.
"They told me to be comfortable and run like I did in high school, that I could do what I did tonight. I'm nervous every game, but after the first couple plays I got real comfortable. They told me to be comfortable and play how I play. Big plays always give us a boost, so I went out there and kept the energy going."
Jason's first touchdown included a spin move to elude the only tackler in his way. He will likely show the spin frequently.
"Yeah, I worked on that throughout high school. The first touchdown, Rejus hits the weakside linebacker. I just hit the hole and it was wide open."
His next touchdown showed his speed, going 41 yards untouched through a gaping hole on the right side.
"Jeff Allen sealed the end, and I just ran through the hole as fast as I could."
The third touchdown showed off his 39" vertical leap, going over the top of a tightly packed line. Overall, Ford seemed like bowling ball careening downhill as he plowed over tacklers and carried others with him. His relentless leg churning reminded some Illini fans of former star Pierre Thomas.
"I think this game makes me want to keep going hard to get better. We were kind of down in the running game the last couple weeks. So I just kept working hard in practice to show I could do it. I'm gonna keep working and trust they'll let me keep doing it week by week."
Coach Zook said Ford would be difficult to interview because he doesn't say much. However, perhaps his newly-found confidence helped him open up as he had no problem sharing his thoughts. And like a seasoned veteran, he already understands the importance of taking the next game seriously, even if Wisconsin has seen some hard times lately.
"They're still a good team. They're struggling a little bit, so they can come back any week. So we're gonna keep working hard for next week."
Coach Ron Zook said the 2008 Fighting Illini would use running backs "by committee" to replace departed All-American Rashard Mendenhall. Four backs are competing for playing time, and each has made contributions this year. The Indiana game was freshman Jason Ford's coming out party.
Rookie takes advantage of opportunity vs. Indiana