By Andrew Lawrence
February 24, 2014
Coaches love Dee Ford's passion and quick first step, but they remain puzzled over his NFL position.
Ric Tapia/Icon SMI

His excused absence might've gone unremarked upon if Ford hadn't dissed his biggest rival and the very people judging their competition in the same breath. On Sunday he told SiriusXM NFL Radio that South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney "plays like a blind dog in a meat market" and admonished the pro talent evaluators -- who have anointed Clowney this year's best pass-rushing prospect -- for putting too much stock in "the fact that he [Clowney] is a physical specimen. I think the NFL should have learned that by now."

What he needed was another course. A familiar course. Football. Dee's first snaps had come when he was 6 on a community center team coached by his father. James, who had played quarterback and tailback in high school, taught his son how to run with the ball and how to tackle. Now, he carved out time to work with Dee outside of his JV football practices at St. Clair County High (Ala.). Dee's energy redirected, he seemed set to give himself over to the sport, which, along with basketball and the Four Connections, would keep him too busy to run off the rails.

One more fight, though, during his sophomore year at St. Clair, nearly halted all of Dee's momentum. His brother had gotten into a scrape in the stands while watching Dee play in a JV basketball game. Compelled to defend him, Dee pushed through his coach to get into the crowd. Or he tried to, anyway. The coach didn't yield, and when another -- the football team's defensive line coach, Matt Hicks, who was watching the game -- grabbed a fistful of Dee's jersey, he knew that expulsion talk would be on again. This time around, however, Dee caught two breaks: 1) Instead of being kicked out, he was sent to another public school in the area for the rest of the school year; and 2) the form he showed trying to bowl over his basketball coach impressed Hicks enough to give Dee a try at defensive end the following year. After Dee finished with 87 tackles and 12 sacks as a junior in his first varsity season, St. Clair's principal called Debbie to say her son might be a D-I prospect (and she should get a jump on prepping for his standardized tests). When she first heard the principal's voice, though, Debbie was convinced Dee was in trouble. "I had no idea what [D-I prospect] meant," she said. "All we knew is that he was a good football player. We didn't know it would lead him to college."

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Still, nobody promised that football would keep him there. The jump in campus size (from an enrollment of 600 to 25,000 at Auburn) and the pressure to compete for playing time with peers who'd soon be taking snaps on Sundays quickly had Ford sliding back into some of his old habits. Like skipping class. Tracy Rocker, Auburn's defensive line coach during Ford's first two seasons, wasn't having it. He called Debbie. "He just said, 'We've got to get a grip on this. Dee's just down here taking his education for granted,'" Debbie recalled.

Rocker's resulting intervention seemed to scare Ford extra straight. He went to class. He got up at five in the morning to lift. He gave up his pizza-and-hamburger-based diet for one built largely around fresh produce and whole grains. He carried a gallon jug of water everywhere he went. Most important, he attended his classes. (In December he graduated with a degree in public administration -- making him the first member of his family to progress through a four-year college.) Suddenly Ford's days of playing in the background seemed through. He looked like a guy who wanted to lead. Discipline, once Ford's most suspect trait, had emerged as a core value.

With that as a foundation, Ford could apply all the perfectionist traits he had been developing as a self-taught musician. "Whenever I would learn a song, I would always start slow to figure it out and then play it over and over and over again until it became second nature," Ford said. "Same thing on the football field. There are certain drills where I just work on fundamentals -- like explosion, for instance. I want to have the same strength all the time and be able to find it when I need it. And that doesn't come just from playing. It comes from a more solid core." Hence the urgency to get to the gym before dawn.

That laser focus is what kept Ford fighting for a starting role on Auburn's D after he made 26 spot-duty appearances in his first two years. And it's what kept him on his grind after suffering the herniated disc injury that would limit his junior year, in 2011, to three games. He received a medical redshirt for that season, and in 2012, Ford started seven games and made 34 tackles and a team-leading six sacks -- but Auburn won only three games.

Things didn't quite come together for both Ford and the Tigers until coach Gus Malzahn returned and brought along defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who took an immediate shine to Ford. "He's playing with a lot of intensity," Johnson told reporters early in the 2013 season. "Good players like that, when they're playing hard, they're going to get their opportunities and make them count."

Playing in Auburn's old defense had been a struggle for Ford. "It was more of an NFL-type defense," he said. "It just had a lot of things in it that would take a couple years to learn. But coach Johnson just lets you play. He believes it's about the players. That's pretty much the difference."

Now, before another one of Ford's honest answers triggers a mini-controversy, consider: he had seen two coordinators come and go before Johnson settled in. Once the coach installed his system, the defense jumped from the SEC cellar to second-best in the red zone (73.1 percent conversion rate allowed). In fact, it was right in that area that Ford dropped Manziel twice to seal the Tigers' win over the Aggies in October.

Given the chance -- and, again, the benefit of health -- Ford will meet the moment. As for his knack for creating sound bites, call it a byproduct of being a dedicated musician: Some improvise. Some stick to the score. But the best all find a way to end on a good note. Time will tell if Ford earns a Sunday encore.

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