POONA FORD COULD START FOR THE LONGHORNS AS A SOPHOMORE
The label "undersized" is not typically associated with a 5-foot-11-inch, 286-pound mass of mostly muscle like Poona Ford, who until he arrived at the University of Texas as a freshman defensive tackle couldn’t recall a time when he wasn't the biggest player on the football field.
Such is the current landscape of major college football that a mountain of a young man like Ford could stand to be a little larger. But anyone who thought that might hold him back doesn't know much about Ford.
The former Hilton Head Island High School star enters his sophomore year with a good chance to start for the Longhorns after impressing the coaching staff in the spring and earning the label of "breakout player" from a number of media outlets.
"He's not very big, but guys never get into his body," Texas head coach Charlie Strong told reporters this spring. "You always talk about just pressing off blocks, running off blocks, and the thing he can do, he can fit up and not get knocked off but he can separate off and go make plays, and a really good pass rusher."
Ford has defied logic on the football field for quite some time. In high school, it was as a hulking H-back who could just as easily dance around defenders as bowl them over. He made acrobatic catches and electrifying cuts that teetered on the edge of unfairness, considering he looked like a man playing among boys.
And his defensive numbers were so absurd in his final two seasons with the Seahawks that his coach, B.J. Payne, made it a point to clarify in interviews that the statistics — the 154 tackles and 44 tackles for loss as a junior, for example — were, in fact, legitimate. Ford's numbers dropped off a bit as a senior, when opposing teams ran far, far away from him and he managed a slightly-less-ridiculous 135 tackles, 28 for loss.
Things didn't come as easily for Ford in his freshman year at Texas. He admits he was surprised by the intensity of big-time college football, and it took him some time to adjust after spending his entire life as a dominating physical presence.
"I think it bettered me," Ford said. "I learned a lot more than I thought I would, and it helped me prepare for next season."
After remaining on the sideline for the Longhorns' first three games, Ford appeared in their last seven contests and nine of their last 10. His numbers weren't necessarily impressive — he recorded nine tackles, one of which was behind the line of scrimmage — but his work ethic was. Ford improved throughout his first year in Austin and went into spring drills knowing what he needed to do to take another step. He focused on technique, searching for ways to use his speed and athleticism to his advantage.
And his coaches took notice. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford called Ford one of the Longhorns' top three defensive linemen coming out of spring practice.
"He looks like a guy that should be a chef — just put a hat on him and that's it," Bedford said. "But all of a sudden he gets down and he's a technician. … He does the little things right and he understands football."
True to his nature, Ford isn't quite sure how to handle all the praise. He is a quiet young man for whom humility comes naturally. He's quick to deflect the credit and doesn't have to be coached to direct the conversation back to the team.
The "breakout" label might fit him, but the spotlight does not.
"It doesn't really mean anything to me," Ford said. "I'm just here to play and be a team player."
Ford recognizes the great opportunity he has by playing at Texas, a program steeped in tradition and history where he often has the chance to pick the brains of former Longhorns who went on to play in the NFL.
If Ford develops into an NFL prospect, the "undersized" label will pop up again. But anyone who knows Poona Ford will know better than to doubt him.