To me, this is the only thing separating Michael Ford from being not just the best back on this team, but perhaps one of the best backs in the conference and the country. His high school mythology runs about as deep as any you've heard. From the weight lifting feats to the freakish pictures of him as a sophomore, to tales of him throwing up 250 yards on a sprained ankle. All of it makes you wonder what's to be believed?
To be clear there is absolutely no questioning Michael Ford's physical talents. He routinely tests out impressively in the weight room (I believe Tommy Moffitt, somewhere, mentioned that Ford is the strongest player, pound-for-pound, on the team). He looks like he's chiseled from granite. Forget Keiland Williams' calves, Michael Ford's biceps look like they've popped many a dweebs' neck in their hey day. And he's not just a muscle-bound plodder. I'd be willing to wager that Ford runs one of the faster 40s on the team, and I'd even wager his first ten yards may be the fastest of anyone.
At times, Michael Ford is the Hermes of running backs, complete with winged shoes, escorting the souls of dead defenses into the realm of Hades. And at other times, he's a Cyclops, a one-eyed giant without the proper depth perception to find the hole. Okay, that analogy didn't work as well as I would have liked.
Truthfully, he can really be a maddening player to watch. When he explodes, it's a thing of beauty. But at other times, he dances around behind the line of scrimmage and goes down without a fight. It's like a taste of potential... only to have it ripped away.
In college, a running back with great speed can often just kick it into second gear, break it to the outside and still make positive yards, and often time, big plays (see Bush, Reggie). Yet time and again we've seen these types of backs go to the next level and fail, while a slower guy (say Jerome Bettis) is able to piece together a near Hall of Fame worthy career. How is that? Well, it's partially due to speed being an overrated attribute for running backs. Sure, Chris Johnson's speed makes him truly elite, but if you truly watch Chris Johnson run, there's a lot more than speed to his game. Johnson knows how to get north/south and he's also a very tough runner, even for his size. He has the vision to see a crease and the speed/explosiveness to exploit it. Those abilities are what have propelled him to being one of the elite backs in the NFL.
Back to the point at hand: speed is useful, but not altogether necessary to be a very good running back. In fact, I'd value vision, decisiveness, toughness and durability higher. Thus far from Ford I've seen the speed, and" at times, I've seen the toughness (something I never saw from Keiland Williams), but the vision and decisiveness have been lacking. Dancing is a running backs worst enemy (typically). Hopping back and forth laterally generally results in no gains, at best, and loss of yards and fumbles at worst. Ford has been a victim of this mentality, at times.
However, against Alabama, I believe we got a picture of what a fully realized Michael Ford could be. Quite frankly, Ford looked to be going for leisurely jogs while everyone else was stuck trudging through mud. He was light on his feet and just downright explosive. But we've seen the speed before. To me, what Ford really showed out on Saturday was a decisiveness that has previously been missing. I took the time to re-watch the tape, remembering Ford had played well. The tape only heightened my opinion. These were the following comments I scribbled:
"JJ in... option time... Ford burst is sensational."
"Ford is running hot... ride that pony! Gets 5 falling forward."
"Ford running so hot... EXPLODING into hole."
"Flip 90 to Ford... good for 7... we can get wide."
Running "hot" is a phrase I like to use for running backs. It's hard to describe. Much like a hitting streak, when you can just tell a guy is in the zone... he's going to hit every pitch, no matter how good... and put it in play. Or when a shooter gets rolling and it seems like everything they throw up goes in. Running backs get this too. There's a difference in their vision and their explosion. They run with confidence and it seems every play breaks open for them. It's not bad defense... it's that player stepping into another realm of unstoppable.
That's how Michael Ford ran on Saturday. I encourage you to go back and watch his runs. He rarely, if ever, missed a hole. Every single time he touched it, he was ripping it and plowing forward... with decisiveness. No dancing. No timid shuffle. No lack of feeling for the hole. Ford was feeling it on Saturday and it was a sight to see. His cut on the option play in OT that set up the game-winning FG was truly magical. He stopped on a dime, cut back inside and exploded to full speed to beat 3 tacklers, who all had angles, down the sideline for a near score. That's special. I also must give pause to give credit to Spencer Ware, who ran his heart out Saturday (as he always does), and did battle in the trenches, which no doubt helped Ford to stretch the outside.
Now, Ford has shown these flashes before. Against Oregon, he looked down right unstoppable. Then he regresses. But seeing him run like this, against one of, if not THE, best defense in the country (particularly against running backs) is truly remarkable). Against Alabama, Ford averaged 6.5 a carry, running it 11 times for 72 yards. You have to go back to the Tennessee game last year to find a running back who touched the ball 10+ times and averaged over 6 YPC. Running backs just don't rip up a Nick Saban defense.
The sky is the limit for Michael Ford. If he learns to run with the toughness and attitude of Spencer Ware, then the rest of America should look out. But, for this year, he can be asset to the LSU offense in the way of big plays that Ware cannot provide. Ware will grind you to death and lull you to sleep, but you better be ready when that burst from Ford comes... because it might be six before you know it.
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