Occasionally, you run across a player that captures your attention that represents upside that others may not perceive. Hilton Head, South Carolina Longhorn commit Defensive Tackle Poona Ford is just such a player.
Ford is a mutant - a rare mix of seemingly contradictory attributes on the edges of the human bell curve. And it's clear that evaluators have no idea what to do with a player with five star film and measurables and one star physical specs. Recruits, like real estate, are most often assessed based on comps. And when you can't find the relevant comps, assessing the true value of a prospect relies on your ability to understand what really matters and what's just white noise.
Ford had absurd production in high school (70+ combined tackles for loss as a junior/senior), is extremely quick, can run (sub 4.9 40 at 280 pounds), and is as football field strong as he is in the weight room. He claims a 600 pound squat and a 34 inch vertical and you can see it in his highlights when he uncoils on someone. He also plays with maniacal effort.
Everyone should be beating down his door, right?
Well, not exactly.
Because Ford is just under 6 feet tall, he is considered a solid to good prospect (24-7 has him ranked as the #22 DT in the country, Rivals #33 behind Horn decommits Zaycoven Henderson and Trey Lealaimatafo). Not shabby - but not nearly reflective of his actual attributes. Or his impact on the field. Particularly when compared to the aforementioned players. The difference between Ford and those other players on film is startling.
To give you an idea of his movement, feet and overall coordination, take a look at these offensive highlights with Ford at FB. This cat is making cuts like Jerome Bettis after a three week Chinese buffet binge. This is not just fun viewing - those sweet feet and that athleticism directly translate to his future role as an interior pit bull.
So I think Ford is considerably better than his ranking. Or at least could be - they're called prospects for a reason. He's being downgraded for one simple reason - his height. If Ford were 6-2 or 6-3, he's a Top 50 National Prospect.
The extreme ranges of height (too short or too tall) matter to an interior DL because they have inferred deficiencies that generally apply to the subtype. This isn't dumb prejudice - they're good solid guidelines. But athletic performance doesn't always honor convention. In fact, the most interesting, compelling athletes often exist on the margins. So you have to do your homework.
What are some of those negative inferences about a sub 6 foot defensive tackle? Do they apply to Ford?
1). Movement/Motor. Blocky DTs tend to dominate the point of attack at the high school level with low pads, strength and leverage, but the stubby fellas don't move well laterally and they tend to lack motor, athleticism and pursuit rendering them fairly useless (or highly specialized) at the next level against zone blocking and spread offenses.
Reality: He has an extraordinary motor, ridiculous short area quickness, sweet feet and a hyperactive style of play. As for effort, well, the tape speaks for itself. Watch his film - do you think he can hold his own at the point of attack? How do you think he'll do in backside pursuit? Does he seem easy to cut?
2). Limb length. At the risk of getting all Jay Bilas up in here, it matters a lot. Short-armed DTs can't pass rush unless they destroy you with their first step and have a freakish ability to break down the OL's arms (see John Randle). Once locked out by a big OL, short and short-limbed DL are left flailing in the air like a little kid with big brother's hand on their forehead. That also means no batted balls and clean sight lines for a QB. That kills you against the quick set college passing game.
Reality: Ford has a 80 inch wingspan. That's the typical wingspan of a 6-6 NBA small forward. I repeat: Ford is a mutant. Someone took Julius Peppers and placed him in a trash compactor until he was seven inches shorter. Combine that wingspan with first step quickness and the ability to get small and you have a 0/1/3 technique gapper who can bring instant pressure and disruption.
3). Ability to carry more good weight. Frame is important. Generally, as short guys gain weight to hang in the college game, their bodies get sloppy and you see a quick degradation of their overall athleticism. They can't move, they get sluggish, they lose their explosiveness.
Reality: Ford isn't really built on a normal human scale. He's already carrying 280+ quite well. He's a wrecking ball. However, this is the most legitimate concern for his future. We don't know at what weight his athleticism falls off of a cliff and the shorter you are, the more unforgiving that drop. Is it 290? 295? Over 300? This is a good test of the Texas S&C program. If Ford's athleticism actually degrades at Texas, I'll know we've got another one-size-fits-all meathead in charge. Or Ford quit on his future.
4). Lack of comparisons. There just aren't a lot of players like him to comp him with. And most evals are done by comps.
Reality: Elite athletes are, by definition, about the very edge of the human bell curve. Some reveal possibilities we'd never considered. Until Usain Bolt, a 6-5 world class sprinter wasn't considered a realistic possibility. Not enough leg turnover, right? Guess not.
NFL defensive ends are ideally 6-5, 270. Until 6 foot tall Dwight Freeney comes along. Suddenly 5-11 Elvis Dumervil isn't such a risk.
Drew Brees allows Russell Wilson who allows Johnny Manziel. Scouts are now forced to look at actual attributes instead of blindly relying on probabilities.
5). Maxed out. Some athletes reach their peak athletic performance at 18. Others continue to grow well into their mid 20s. Ford isn't exactly a rangy kid still growing into his body. Is this as good as he gets?
Reality: Ford can still get stronger and more flexible and though his frame has no margin for error on carrying capacity, I think he still has athletic upside. He's just too athletic overall not to grow his skill set. This is the most athletic guy on that football field.
Absent easy comparisons, you have to turn to the attributes themselves. Ford has some really interesting ones that are difficult to argue against. And the things that may undermine him as a prospect apply to all DTs.
My only concern with Ford is the same concern I have for every DT. Will he eat his way out of a job? On his frame, he has no leeway to carry bad weight. The moment he gets sluggish, he's a role player interior run stopper (see Miguel McKay) and he'll be buried by 6-5, 320 pound OL who can turn the game into a contest of mass.
He's exceptional because he can move. If that deteriorates, he's just another guy.
His cautionary tales are former Texas signees Sonny Davis and Taylor Bible. Two elite, high energy, shortish DT prospects whose careers were over before they started simply because they couldn't push away from the dinner table (and Texas had no meaningful S&C outreach to guide them).
However, if Ford - and the Texas coaches - can understand that the power in his game is in his quickness, his lateral movement, his ability to generate short area power with speed and strength, Texas just landed one of the most unique college football prospects in America.
Anyone else have a sneaking suspicion that Charlie Strong gets that?