Maturity manifests itself in a lot of different ways on the football field.
For LSU sophomore Michael Ford, his growth spurt between last season and this year’s season-opening victory read like this: A career-high 96 yards on 14 carries, also his most in a game, and a pair of touchdowns.
Scratch a little deeper, though, and listen to the former Leesville star talk about why he’s playing differently and you sense pretty quickly that his maturity is multi-layered.
Ford is the TigerSportsDigest.com Offensive Player of the Week after LSU’s 40-27 triumph against Oregon.
He keyed a second-half offensive resurgence, carrying the ball 11 times for 73 yards and his two rushing TDs as the Tigers (1-0) methodically wore down the Ducks’ defense.
Coupled with Spencer Ware’s 99 powerful yards running mostly off-tackle, Ford was the perfect change-of-pace complement for an LSU offense geared around the running game.
“If Ware can take a toll on a defense and you can bring in some fresh legs and can pound the line of scrimmage as well, there’s some advantages there,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
“(Ford has really improved since he's gotten here. Theknock on Michael was whether he finishes runs, and that's not the case anymore. He's a downhill, hard-nosed runner. He can run the perimter with speed. He's one of the more mature lifters on our team, very strong, very fast runner. He can make the cut and make people miss. He really is developing into a full well-rounded running back.”
That Miles had that much to say about Ford is a strong indication of how well the back may have turned the corner.
Perceived or real, there’s always been an implication that Ford couldn’t get on the field because he was in Miles’ doghouse, couldn’t wrap his head around the offense or a combination of both.
Whether that was true in the past or not, Ford’s evolution in the offseason was on display last week.
“Coming into the SEC, it’s just about learning how to practice – being more physical and taking practice just like it’s a game,” said Ford, who rushed for 244 yards and three TDs last season. “You can’t leave anything unfinished.
“When you get to college, it’s more about studying film and learning defenses. You can’t go out there like a chicken with your head cut off. Everybody is good, so you’ve really got so slow the game down in your mind and have pre-snap reads.”
Operating behind Stevan Ridley last season, Ford’s opportunities were sparse and that left fans scratching their heads. As a senior at Leesville, Ford rambled for 2,953 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns and was regarded as major piece of the 2009 recruiting class.
But he redshirted his first season, despite a wave of injuries that elevated Ridley to the starting job late in the season.
Then last season when it seemed like LSU needed the kind of change-of-pace Ford supplied in the opener, he rarely got on the field.
If his first two seasons left the 5-foot-10, 212-pound Ford with any lingering frustration, he hides it well.
“The moments I had last year were great moments,” he said. “You have to make the best out of whatever chances you get.”
Even in pre-season camp, Ford’s name seemed to get lost in the shuffle at times when Miles spoke of the running backs.
Ware has been the clear-cut starter since a 102-yard coming-out party in the Cotton Bowl, with Alfred Blue and Terrance Magee often getting the second mentions. And it was Blue who got the first chance to take over for Ware early against Oregon with a carry and a pass thrown his way on the opening series.
Yet when the LSU offense needed a jump-start, there was Ford, front and center.
“Whoever gets the ball, we’re going to take whatever we get and make the best of it,” Ford said. “You never know who’s going to get the ball, so you have to stay focused and do the best you can.”
One thing Ford did better against Oregon was finishing runs better, even if it meant settling for what he had and not trying to make lemonade when he was all out of lemons.
As much as anything, that was a tell-tale sign of growing up.
“You learn to finish the runs as strong as you can,” Ford said. “Instead of going out of bounds, you fight for the extra yards, but when it’s time to get down, you get down.”
Although his career may just now be starting to take flight, Ford is also in the role of mentor to a batch of young backs.
In particular, Ford has plenty in common with Kenny Hilliard.
Both are in-state legends who piled up record-setting numbers before arriving at LSU. Ford has endured the transition and said he’s done whatever he could to help Hilliard – the state’s all-time leading rusher at Patterson – get adjusted.
“I told him you’ve just got to stay focused,” Ford said. “All that stuff is over. You’ve got to leave that stuff in the past and go to practice and work as hard as you can to keep getting better.”
Worked for Ford last week, and as a result he may have set the tone for a breakout sophomore season.
Defensive Player of the Week: Tyrann Mathieu
A 10-tackle day only begins to tell the story of how huge Mathieu was against Oregon.
He also broke up a pair of passes, one that was dangerously close to being a pick-six, and set the swagger level for the rest of the Tigers.
Special teams Player of the Week: Ron Brooks
While it was Mathieu who claimed the glory when he stripped Oregon’s Kenjon Barner on a punt and snagged the ball for a 3-yard touchdown return, Brooks was the gunner who disrupted the play to begin with.
Brooks also recorded a stop on a punt return for a 1-yard loss and smothered a fumble on a kickoff return.