Auburn football: Johnathan Ford has 'always wanted to run the rock,' hopes to return to backfield next season

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 15, 2014 

In this file photo, Johnathan Ford carries the ball during one of Auburn's scrimmages during fall camp. The rising sophomore ran only six times for 78 yards this year, as he moved to corner before the season began. It doesn't appear he'll get the opportunity to carry the ball too many more times in his time on the Plains.

TODD VAN EMST — Auburn University

AUBURN, Ala.Johnathan Ford is never more at ease than when he steps on the field.

It’s more than just a comfort level. Describing it isn’t easy, he said.

The only way for others to understand is to experience it themselves.

“I feel free,” Ford said. “I’m very comfortable out there. The feeling of scoring a touchdown, that’s just unbelievable. Your confidence just shoots up another level.”

Auburn’s rising sophomore didn’t get the opportunity to score often this past season. That’s partially due to the difficulty of breaking into the Tigers’ running back rotation, which became more Tre Mason-centric with each passing game. But the biggest factor in Ford’s lack of touches this season?

The majority of his playing time came on defense.

Ford came in as a highly-regarded tailback in last year’s recruiting class. Circumstances — depth concerns in the secondary due to a combination of injuries, dismissals and transfers — merited him moving to corner during fall camp. It was a decision he made on his own, as Ford offered to switch to defense.

So how does Ford view how he performed in his first year?

“I don’t think I’m going to settle in just yet. I’m doing what it takes to get out there on the field and help my team the best way I can,” he said. “I’m still working and preparing myself in life. I’m very, very excited for the spring to show everybody what position I’m going to be playing for my next three years in college.”

When asked where that would be last week, Gus Malzahn divulged no details.

“We’ll evaluate all those things at a later date,” Auburn’s coach said.

Make no mistake, though: Ford has a preference.

“I love running the ball. That’s my passion,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to run the rock at Auburn University in front of 80 or 90 thousand fans. That’s what I hope I can do.”

He had few opportunities to do so in 2013. Ford carried the ball a combined six times for 73 yards in blowout victories against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic. That total included a whirling, 38-yard touchdown in the win over the Catamounts.

Defensively, he participated in all 14 games, but made no starts, finishing with five tackles and a pass breakup.

While Ford didn’t produce eye-popping numbers, he wasn’t disappointed in himself.

Instead, he was thankful to be able to use the season as a crash course of how to play running back in the SEC, taking stock of what areas he could improve in his own game. More importantly, he could try to incorporate skills his teammates possessed into his own repertoire.

Who better to learn from than a Heisman Trophy finalist, after all?

“I watch the way he carries the ball,” Ford said. “I watch his moves and different things like that. … I learn a lot myself, (so) I’m very enthused about everything. I’ve been learning this whole entire year from Tre. He’s got some great moves and he’s very balanced.”

Aside from the gains he’s made individually, Ford acknowledged it was a humbling freshman campaign. He never imagined he would be playing in the BCS championship game so soon. To do so was “gratifying,” knowing he was part of the team that got Auburn’s program back on the right track.

Simply put, Ford said his fellow freshman should always look back on the season with a sense of pride.

“We all came in and made an impact somewhere,” he said. “That’s something our class really wanted to do: Bring a championship back to Auburn. We’ve got great guys here.”

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