His USF debut could not have come fast enough.
Before he had ever played a down for the Bulls, sophomore running back Mike Ford was one of the most popular players on the team.
Fans were cheering for him to step onto the field, and with good reason.
As a senior at Sarasota High School in 2004, Ford ran for a state-record 2,836 yards and had 37 touchdowns.
He signed with Alabama in 2005, but decided to go to the Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.
“The military taught me a lot,” Ford said. “You go in and you’re laughing and joking around, but when you come out, you hold your head up, chest up and have a lot of respect. It was a lot of hard work.”
The hard work seemed to pay off.
Ford had 12 rushing touchdowns as a freshman, and he scored on a touchdown pass from junior quarterback Matt Grothe. The 13 total touchdowns are a USF freshman record.
This year, Ford will have to deal with the publicity that comes from being a leader on the nationally ranked USF team, but don’t expect the added recognition and accolades to affect his focus.
“I don’t think any of those things will go to Mike’s head,” USF running backs coach Carl Franks said. “He seems to have handled all the praise and publicity he’s gotten very well. He’s a humble young man. He’s very good with fans and the media, so I’m not concerned about him in that regard.”
USF offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said he agrees with Franks’ assessment, adding that Ford is still competing for playing time with at least three other running backs.
“Mike has looked good, but we’ve had a lot of good running backs fighting for carries,” Gregory said. “We’ve got a lot of talent at that position, and we’re just trying figure everything out.”
Ford may be in a battle on the depth chart, but he said he frequently tries to teach his teammates some of the lessons he learned at Hargrave.
“I have people coming up and asking me about my time there,” Ford said. “I just tell them that we had it rough. They think the sun is bad? Try walking up a mountain after practice. We did learn a lot though — how to be humble and how to be respectful.”
Franks, however, said he feels Ford’s humility goes beyond just two years of military school.
“I think that him being humble and well-mannered probably goes back to his mom,” he said. “I think it has a lot to do with the people he grew up with.”
Ford’s cousin and former USF teammate Amarri Jackson agrees.
“Mike is a very humble person and he comes from a very supportive family,” Jackson said. “He’s a team player who would much rather have his accomplishments mentioned as more of a team thing. He’s matured into a great person. He’s an elite talent and tremendous teammate.”
With the spotlight getting brighter, Ford said he needed to improve the physical aspect of his game and, during the off-season, he added 10 pounds of muscle.
“I think that the extra weight definitely helped me — it made me stronger and faster,” Ford said. “I am more agile and I feel like I did in high school. I’m ready to get out on the field and show everybody what I can do.”
While Ford said he felt stronger, the coaches said they need to see him in a game before they know the impact of Ford’s weight gain.
“I don’t know how much it’s helped him yet,” Franks said. “I know he feels better, but I won’t be able to tell until I see him on film after our first game.”
“I don’t want to start singing anybody’s praises before they’ve earned it,” he said. “We want to wait and see what he does on the field before we start talking about him.”
With expectations at an all-time high for the Bulls — who are ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press poll and No. 21 in the USA Today coaches poll — Ford is ready to hit the field.
“There’s a lot of pressure on us this year, and we like that,” Ford said. “I just want to go out there and help this team win a Big East title. I think that’s the goal everybody has right now.”