Jason Ford has been a productive running back for Illinois throughout his career. He has accumulated 1,362 yards rushing his first three seasons, scoring 19 touchdowns. He also has 27 pass receptions for another 259 yards. With star Mikel Leshoure moving on to the NFL, Ford figures to be the go-to back on the 2011 team.
However, some Illini fans remember him only as an overweight back whose speed and quickness waned as his body size increased. That was in the past. Since the end of last season, Ford has dedicated himself to getting in the best shape possible. Now at 233 pounds, Illini head coach Ron Zook is pleased with Ford's progress.
"Jason tries. The poor guy tries. He went to a point where he was trying to starve himself, and that's not the right way to do it. We've got a nutritionist involved to help him a little bit. He had to understand it's not that you don't eat, it's that you don't eat quite as much.
"He's a big guy too. We showed him on tape when he's 242 or 243, and then where he is when he's 235 or 232. There's a big difference in quickness and step and so forth. He's a power back. If he can do all the things at 230 that he can do at 240, then we'd like to have him at 230."
Ford has become careful about his diet, and it is helping.
"I've been doing the same things I've been doing throughout the summer. Lean meat, more vegetables and fruit, things like that."
Losing weight and getting in top condition has paid off in fall practices.
"This year I can go full speed. Last year, I had to take off various parts of practice. But this year I can go through the whole thing. I'm in good shape."
"Yes it is. Ever since I've been here, Mikel, (Daniel) Dufrene, Troy have always been competition. I've been fighting to play, so it's something I'm used to."
Of course, he has extra incentive this season.
"It makes me more motivated knowing it's my last season. I want to do big things and hope to get to the next level. Keep working hard to do that."
Ford is taking advantage of every moment he has left to become the best he can be. He even enjoyed his final Camp Rantoul.
"This was my last camp. I love Camp Rantoul. I'm glad it's my last one, but I was glad to go through it one more time. Doing the same things over and over is kind of boring, but being around all the teammates and getting better is always good. I enjoyed it."
Ford is barrel-chested and extremely strong. Those who try to tackle him high suffer all sorts of injuries and still don't bring him down. They resort to diving at his ankles, which has produced multiple ankle sprains in the past.
"Yeah, it's kind of hard because you never know what they're gonna do. Sometimes they come up high, and other times they dive at the last minute. You have to take the hit and keep going."
He is aware of the potential for injury and is learning to counter the problem.
"This year, I'm gonna keep running hard. If I do get hit on the ankles, I'm gonna get more treatment. Last year, I tried to fight through it instead of getting more treatment. This year, I'm doing more treatment things, making sure I get right.
"I did a lot of ankle strengthening. I'm gonna try to get that right. Even if I don't get hurt, I'm still gonna ice it down, things like that."
Ford relishes contact. Most fall practices, no tackling is allowed. It has given defensive players a false sense of security which dwindles during contact sessions.
"Oh yeah. We always talk about defense, but when we have shorts on they can be tough guys. But when they've got to hit me, their whole aspect changes. They don't try to hit me up top. They always go low, but I try to catch them."
Zook sings Ford's praises and anticipates an outstanding season ahead.
"Jason has had a good attitude. In my mind, he's always been an awfully good back. I think more and more in football, in college football and the National Football League as well, you play more than one back.
"It just happened that Jason got nicked up and things went great for Mikel, so we kind of got in that groove. But the more backs you've got, the better you're gonna be.
"I can't help but believe Jason is a guy with a little bit of pep in his step. He understands there's been some pretty good running backs come out of here the last few years. We've had three guys since we've been here who have been in the National Football League, and there's no reason to believe he can't be the fourth.
"I don't think there's any reason why he can't be the kind of back Mikel was and Rashard (Mendenhall) was. Jason's gonna be as good as Jason wants to be. I think he's got a chance to be a really good back."