From absence to presence
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The first two years of Paris Ford’s Pitt career were defined by absence.
He was absent from summer workouts prior to his freshman season when academic issues prevented him from enrolling in June with his classmates. He was absent from live game action during his freshman season when that delayed enrollment led to him redshirting.
After he got on the field in the season opener last year, he was absent from the biggest home game of his young career, logging exactly zero snaps in the Week Two loss to Penn State. And when the season ended with the team in El Paso, he was absent once again, staying in Pittsburgh due to personal reasons.
All of that added up to disappointment for the highest-rated recruit to sign with Pitt under Pat Narduzzi - disappointment for Ford himself, for the coaches who expected him to be a playmaker in the secondary and for the fans who were excited to see him make an impact.
If this spring is any indication, though, Ford’s pattern of absence may soon turn into one of presence.
“Right now, Paris Ford’s a starter at boundary safety coming out of spring ball, period,” Pat Narduzzi said after Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. That’s quite a bold pronouncement from Pitt’s head coach, who usually prefers to leave things more vague than specific, often proclaiming multiple starters at each position and making “OR” the most popular word on the depth chart.
But there seems to be something tangible behind Narduzzi’s words this spring. Earlier in the day on Saturday, Ford received the Ed Conway Award as one of the most improved players in spring camp, and he followed that public recognition with an impressive public display, putting up a game-high seven tackles and grabbing an interception in the end zone.
All of that showed the natural physical abilities, but those were no surprise. Ford has been doing those kinds of things since his high school days at Seton LaSalle and Steel Valley. But the missing piece has been the work off the field - the extra time a player has to put in if he wants to turn physical skill into that element coaches want just as much as playmaking talents:
Ford lacked that last season, but with more maturity - “That was a big thing for me,” he said Saturday - the former four-star prospect has been able to make strides in convincing the coaches that he won’t be prone to mistakes on the field.
“We put a lot on our safeties: there’s a lot of checks, there’s a lot of formation-recognition, there’s a lot on their plate,” safeties coach Cory Sanders said Saturday. “And as you leave this spring, you feel very comfortable with Paris being able to sit back there and man it up and make the calls that need to be made…The kid’s a playmaker, and now just him mentally knowing what’s going on there overall - our scheme and how his piece fits into the puzzle - has been great to watch as a coach and his growth.”
“He’s always been talented, he’s always been fast, he’s always been physical and he’s always been a playmaker; that interception is just what you see all the time,” Narduzzi said. “But now he’s figured out the knowledge part of it, which you guys see in our facility all the time is around. It’s part of the process and Paris has competed in the process and he’s a playmaker.”
Another element working in Ford’s favor this spring was a position change. He is back at safety after spending the 2018 season playing cornerback in something of a purgatory; safety is his natural position, though, and while there were visions during his recruitment of him patrolling deep as a center-field free safety, he’s working as the boundary safety, a spot that moves him closer to the line of scrimmage.
That means he’s a significant part of the running game, as those duties led to Jordan Whitehead being Pitt’s top tackler for multiple seasons playing boundary safety.
“I love being physical,” Ford said. “That’s been part of my game since I was about nine years old: physicality.”
Now, according to Ford and his coaches, knowledge is being added to physicality, and the results could be huge for Pitt’s defense. The unit has been solid for the last two seasons, but it has lacked a playmaker - a player who can make a game-changing impact.
Ford has that potential, and his steps toward reliability led to Narduzzi’s pronouncement on Saturday. For his part, Ford knows he’s got more to prove.
“That’s big words from ‘Duzz,” Ford said. “I’m glad to be named a starter; I’m just going to keep my head down and keep working. I haven’t proved nothing to no one yet. I’ve still got a ways to go.”