AUBURN, Ala. — Just before Auburn began spring practice, Johnathan Ford went into Gus Malzahn's office. A rising sophomore, the player known to his teammates as "Rudy" hoped to hear he was returning to running back — his favorite position and the spot the Tigers originally recruited him to play. Indeed, Ford learned from his coach he would be on the move; it wouldn't involve him returning to the backfield, however.
Instead, he shifted within the secondary, going from cornerback to safety. While he was a bit disappointed when the news first hit, he jumped headfirst into learning another new spot.
"On defense, you get more things thrown at you than you do on offense, but it's just a blessing," Ford said. "I like to learn really quick. Whatever they throw at me, I like to learn from it. If I make a mistake, next play, get back up, try it again and keep on rolling with it."
Slowly but surely, Ford began to pick up intricacies of safety. But since fall camp arrived, Ellis Johnson said Ford "looks like a different guy" than the one he saw in the spring.
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"He's making less mistakes. He's making some plays that he might have been a step slow on in the spring," Johnson said. "Either his eyes or his fundamentals are now matching up with his skill set and he's making some plays out there that's really grabbing our attention."
At the outset of preseason camp, Ford was working at both field and boundary safety. Getting reps at field meant he was serving as senior Jermaine Whitehead's apprentice.
Having a player as experienced as Whitehead — who has started 27 games the past three seasons — to turn to has been an invaluable resource.
"If I make a mistake, he's right there to help. It's been great. I kind of see myself as an older guy now, too. I've learned the defense, so I feel comfortable back there," Ford said. "But if anything goes wrong, Jermaine is always right there. I can ask him how to do this, how to do that, and he'll show me."
There is one way Ford still identifies with his past as a ballcarrier: He's vying to get into the kick return rotation. That's as close as one will get to hearing Ford talk about offense, though.
He's a defender now.
"I've found a home on the defensive side," Ford said. "All of those guys have welcomed me in and blessed me. I’ve just been staying focused and studying as much as I can.”
All of his hard work has appeared to pay off. On Thursday, Johnson said Ford had moved ahead of Derrick Moncrief at boundary safety.
"It's pretty even, but Moncrief missed some practices," Johnson said. "I think he had a virus — one day dehydrated, another day a few days later where he had a virus or a bug or something that dehydrated him again. So he's missed a little bit of time, and Rudy took advantage of it."
Beyond immersing himself into studying, Ford has also became a workout warrior during the offseason. He's put on more than 20 pounds of muscle, up to 205 pounds after playing at 184 last season. Ford didn't sacrifice an iota of his speed, either; when he was most recently timed in the 40-yard dash, the Big Cove, Ala., native was timed at 4.23 seconds.
So to say Ford only vaulted past Moncrief because of an illness would be unfair. Just ask the players Ford has to go against at practice.
Ford is at the top of the depth chart because he's earned it.
"He's coming along real good, real fast. I don't think he'll get beat deep too many times because he's always on alert," receiver Quan Bray said, recalling one day at practice when he thought he had Ford beat on a deep route. " ... And as soon as I looked up, he had recovered. He's got good recovering speed, so I'm excited to see him back there."