UL's Ford: 'An athlete in a big-man’s body'
UL’s new starting tight end used to be an offensive lineman, who used to be — get this — a quarterback.
Who is this guy who once lived in the pocket, and now is attached to the line?
“He’s an athlete in a big-man’s body,” UL coach Mark Hudspeth said.
Raynard Ford — all 6 feet, 5 inches and 291 pounds of him — embraces his new position, which also was one of his old positions for a while in junior college.
“I’m really excited about playing tight end,” Ford said. “I’ve been looking forward to it for a while.”
Not long ago, though, Ford had different aspirations.
He initially wanted to fling the ball in college, just like he did at DuVal High in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The Washington, D.C., native didn’t partake in organized football until he was in the 10th grade, when he was pulled away from basketball by “the physicality” of the gridiron.
But before buckling a chinstrap, one issue had to be resolved: What position Ford should play?
When someone asked, the kid went with what he knew best.
Why not shoot for the stars?
“Growing up, when I used to play football outside,” he said, thinking back to days when there were no coaches and the rules were loose, “I noticed I could throw really far.
“When I went to the head coach, and we discussed football, he asked me what position I would like to play. And the first thing that came to mind was quarterback. I felt like Eli Manning. I always wanted to be like him.”
Fair enough, Ford. You’re a quarterback.
He started a couple games his junior season, and throughout his senior season at DuVal.
It was a successful final year for Ford, who led his team to a 7-3 record as a senior and played for winning Prince George County in a high school all-star game.
It hardly mattered that Ford weighed in the 221-to-225 pound range at the time, because he was willing to do whatever it took.
“I did a lot of running,” Ford said. “I wasn’t the fastest, but I was big, so I just ran over a lot of people.
“I was mostly a pocket passer,” he added. “I had a pretty strong arm — an ability to throw the ball. Deep.”
'Kind of stubborn'
So it was only natural to stay at QB when Ford got to ASA College in New York.
There were some problems with that, though.
One was being third on depth chart at the position. Another was starting to overgrow the position.
Then there was this: “The change in the speed of the game was unbelievable,” Ford said.
He no longer could simply wing it.
“I had to study plays and everything to understand what was going on,” Ford said.
The silver lining there: Ford learned each of his juco’s play calls, and came not just his personal assignments but also that everyone else.
The transition to tight end, then, was smooth.
“(It) was much easier because I knew the entire offense,” Ford said. “I knew where every play was going.”
When a lineman needed a read, he could make it. When the quarterback needed help seeing something, he could offer it.
Playing tight end became natural, and it was fun.
Ford didn’t mind intentionally consuming however many calories were needed to pack on extra pounds, so many so grew quickly to 285.
And he wound up catching five passes for 81 yards.
That in mind, it’s little wonder Ford cringed a little upon being asked to move onto the line for the last couple games of his juco career.
“At one point I was kind of stubborn … because I loved the position at tight end,” Ford said. “And I always looked at myself as a big, athletic guy who could help the team running around and just being a big force on the field.
“So it took me a little while. But I had to understand it would be best to listen to other people that have more experience, that has seen it before, that moving to the offense line would be better, at least at the moment.”
'I was happy'
UL signed Ford as an offensive lineman, so ultimately that change did pay.
In his first year with the Ragin’ Cajuns, however, Ford didn’t play. He spent 2015 on UL’s scout team instead.
Last season, still on the o-line, he appeared in 10 games, mostly on UL’s PAT unit. Ford did get one start at right tackle, when Grant Horst had to sit out a quadruple-overtime loss at Tulane.
With the Cajuns returning four of their line starters, and losing only center Eddie Gordon, extensive playing time didn’t seem to be in the cards for Ford’s fifth-year senior season.
But with Nick Byrne having been a senior in 2016, UL also needed a new starting tight end.
Reserve Matt Barnes was coming off a significant knee injury, and highly hyped signee Chase Rogers is a true freshman, so Ford was approached about moving to one of his old positions.
It wasn’t QB. Cajuns starter Jordan Davis needn’t worry.
Ford’s response to being back at tight end?
“I was happy,” he said.
So are the Cajuns.
“That guy is giving us not just a ‘big man,’” said Hudspeth, who wishes he’d made the change last season. “He’s got great hands.
“He’s very smart, intelligent. He picks up everything well. He is just (291) pounds that’s very athletic that can really create some problems.”
Teammates believe that, at tight end, Ford can utilize all that athleticism.
They also think his size, perhaps on occasion, can lull to sleep opposing defenses that may not respect his route-running and pass-catching ability.
“I feel like that is going to help him in his blocking this year,” starting offensive guard Kevin Dotson said. “It’s just gonna help improve his overall ability to help the offensive line — in the run game, pass game when they think he’s blocking.”
“He goes where he’s needed, honestly. … He’s very athletic,” Horst added. “He’s a very big, solid guy. So I think he’s gonna do well in our system.”
Horst, who himself carries 302 pounds on a 6-5 frame, suggested Ford is all muscle.
“So he might be a surprise,” Horst said, “but he can move.”
'He has soft hands'
It actually doesn’t shock Horst one bit that Ford once was a juco quarterback.
He used to a QB too.
“I played every position on that field,” Horst said.
“I played quarterback fifth grade, sixth grade … Middle school I wanted to play defense so I moved to outside linebacker, and I played a wide receiver-tight end kind of deal.
“It wasn’t until high school,” he added, “that they said, ‘You’re playing tight end,’ and then they kind of shifted me into the offensive line.”
In Ford’s case, it simply took a little longer before it became apparent he was an oversized QB — perhaps because he didn’t play much earlier.
But now that he’s home at tight end, the Cajuns plan to take full advantage.
“Raynard Ford brings something to the table from the standpoint that he’s extremely physical and he has soft hands,” first-year offensive coordinator Will Hall said.
Related:New Cajun coordinator
Playing previously on the offensive line, Hudspeth said, is “gonna help him blocking at the point of attack.”
“He’s not afraid,” the Cajun coach added. “He’ll put (his) face on you.”
“He can add a whole ’nother gap to that side of the line of the scrimmage.”
Hudspeth — whose Cajuns open Sept. 2 at home against Southeastern Louisiana, followed by visits to Tulsa and Texas A&M — also likes Ford’s fortitude.
He was reminded of that one day early in preseason camp.
“His first rep he was high, and (he) got knocked back, and we challenged him after that,” Hudspeth said.
“He came off with great pad level,” Hudspeth said, “and showed he could be the best tight end in this (Sun Belt) conference if he will play with that pad level every play.”
Although Ford missed some sessions later in camp and UL’s final scrimmage because of a tight hamstring, and practiced only “lightly” early this week, he’s on track to play in the Cajuns’ opener against SLU.
He’s ready, willing and hopes — hamstring permitting — to be able.
“I just want to help the team as much as I can,” he said. “So whatever they need me to do … ”
That undoubtedly will mean blocking — much blocking. But will it also mean actually having some plays drawn up for the Cajun tight end?
“I hope so,” Ford said.