Illini's Ford in good shape for breakout year

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Jason Ford's intentions have always been in the right place in his attempt to become Illinois' next great running back.

Ford understood he had to lose weight to become a faster back. He also realized he needed to be more durable.

Ford’s problem hasn’t been one of laziness. He’s tried to be leaner. He’s attempted to stay on the field longer. Where Ford has failed in past years has been in his approach. When he attempted to lose weight before, he did so by simply not eating as much. That seemed logical to him. With improving his durability, he believed he needed to be tougher and fight through whatever was ailing him.

These days, Ford shakes his head at his old self. Heading into his senior season, Ford went to a dietician and discovered losing weight was about eating right, not eating less. He’s since lost 13 pounds. He also found out the best way to stay on the field was to spend more time rehabbing and strengthening his body. It wasn’t about being tough.

And now with Ford down to 230 pounds and still possessing that same drive to be a great running back, he’s confident he will finally achieve what he’s always wanted to.

“Last year, I felt I did some things,” said Ford, who rushed for 480 yards and seven touchdowns as future NFL draft pick Mikel Leshoure’s backup. “I want to keep pushing thorough that and do some of the things that past running backs did like Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure. I feel like with me being in better shape now and taking care of myself, I feel like I can do the same things they did.”

The Illinois coaching staff has a strong confidence in that as well due to Ford’s commitment in the offseason. Ford was challenged by the Illini’s staff to take care of his weight and nagging injuries, and Ford answered them.

Illinois coach Ron Zook has even started calling Ford, “Big Sexy,” due to his new body.

“I heard a rumor that he was walking around campus with his shirt off,” Zook said. “He squelched that rumor. He said it wasn’t true. This is the first time in at least two years, maybe three years, he has come back to campus healthy. He’s had a great camp. He’s stronger. He’s faster. I’ve seen him make some moves in Rantoul that I haven’t see him make since he was a freshman.

“I’m proud of him. I’m really proud of him.”

Illinois running backs coach DeAndre Smith has especially enjoyed seeing Ford’s ability evolve in the last year. Ford has become what Smith thought he could be.

“The biggest thing is he’s able to finish runs, just having that ability and being able to play another play consecutively,” Smith said. “He’s going to break some runs. There’s no question about that. But how many can he break and how long will he be able to sustain that? That’s what that does for him as well.

“At the end of the day, he’s a senior. You want your seniors to play their best football. He’s doing all the right things as a senior. He’s putting himself in a position to have a really special year.”

Ford has felt the difference in his body throughout fall camp. Where a year ago he was drained after a few consecutive carries, he can run with the ball as long Illinois needs him to this season.

“I feel lighter,” Ford said. “I can make more moves like when I was lighter during my freshman year. I’m just more conditioned. I feel like I can last longer.”

So the question now is: Which past great running back does Ford think he can emulate this season? Mendenhall or Leshoure?

“I say I got a little bit of both,” Ford said. “I can make a couple moves, but I’m more of a power back.”