Editor's Note: These lists feature our thoughts on the most important players for Auburn heading into the 2016 football season. We are counting down 16 key Tigers for the offense and 16 more for the defense as Coach Gus Malzahn's team prepares to face Clemson in the season opener.
Auburn, Ala.--Perhaps no player on Auburn’s defense benefitted more from a position change last season than defensive back Johnathan Ford. A starter at safety early in the season, where had been a fixture the last two years, Ford moved to the nickel position in Auburn’s scheme for the last third of the season and it signaled a step up in performance for both he and the Tigers’ defense as a whole.
Finishing the year with 118 tackles to lead the team, Ford has been Mr. Productive for the Tigers since first stepping on the field as a freshman. Recruited as a running back, he played cornerback as a freshman before moving to safety as a sophomore. With 93 tackles in 2014, Ford enters his final year on the Plains with 216 career tackles and five interceptions.
Ford really settled into his role down the stretch last season and that’s a good sign for Auburn's defenseheading into the fall. While his number of tackles actually went down while lining up at nickel, moving Ford closer to the line of scrimmage made the defense better because of his ability to cover receivers in the slot. That’s a huge bonus for the Tigers as he returns as one of the most experienced defenders in the league.
Best Case Scenario: Ford continues his strong play and becomes a force at the nickel position for the Tigers. With three interceptions a season ago, Ford is primed to have a monster year if teams have to throw the ball more this season against the Tigers. With a defensive line expected to be improved this season, Ford and the entire secondary should get plenty of opportunities for big plays in 2016.
Worst Case Scenario: The biggest concern will be if the Tigers have any injuries at the safety position. Without much depth to work with and Tray Matthews coming back after having shoulder surgery, if Ford is forced to go back to the safety spot it could be an already young secondary in a bind.
Career Comparison: If Ford reminds me of anyone I would probably go with Roderick Hood because of speed and ability in the return game in addition to their play in the defensive backfield. Hood wasn’t as productive in terms of tackles made as Ford was while at Auburn, finishing with just 108 total tackles in 18 starts after initially walking on to the program, but with a long NFL career there was never a doubt about Hood’s talent.
That is something you can see from Ford and it showed up his freshman season even when he was at running back. With the chance to still touch the ball this season as a kickoff returner and maybe even in a specialized role on offense, Ford should have a chance to follow in Hood’s footsteps and have a career in the NFL.
Montravius Adams (1) and Rudy Ford (23) will be key seniors for the 2016 defense.
Ford At His Best: Needing every one of his 14 tackles in a close win over Kentucky, Auburn got the best of Ford in Lexington last fall. Also adding a sack, Ford has a monster night against the Wildcats and showed he was capable of being a difference maker for the Tigers.
Quote: “It's treated like a third corner, Ford said of playing the nickel position. “You've got to be able to cover. You can do different things out there. You can blitz, you can cover, you can play in a zone. It's a lot of mixture of different things. Nickel is a great position to play.”