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Why Tampa’s Jerome Ford is the Cotton Bowl’s most interesting player

“I would kind of appreciate it if people stop calling me the Alabama transfer. I’m a Cincinnati Bearcat.”
Armwood High alumnus Jerome Ford has become a star at Cincinnati after transferring from Alabama.
Armwood High alumnus Jerome Ford has become a star at Cincinnati after transferring from Alabama. [ AARON DOSTER | Associated Press ]
Published Dec. 29, 2021|Updated Dec. 31, 2021

The most interesting participant in the College Football Playoff doesn’t want to talk much about what makes him so interesting.

“I would kind of appreciate it if people stop calling me the Alabama transfer,” said Jerome Ford, who (sorry, Jerome) transferred from Alabama in early 2020. “I’m a Cincinnati Bearcat.”

Before Ford was either — and an X-factor in Friday’s Cotton Bowl semifinal between his top-ranked former team and his fourth-ranked current one — he was an Armwood High Hawk.

Related: Why former Florida QB Feleipe Franks sparked Arkansas’ turnaround to Tampa

Ford flashed his potential early, winning district titles in the 100 meters (10.98 seconds) and 200 (22.61) as a freshman. Then-coach Sean Callahan called him “probably the fastest guy we’ve had.”

Jerome Ford was a blue-chip recruit at Armwood High before signing with Alabama.
Jerome Ford was a blue-chip recruit at Armwood High before signing with Alabama. [ Times (2017) ]

A spring at receiver attracted major recruiting interest and offers from the likes of USF and Iowa State before he blossomed into a four-star recruit who signed with Alabama in December 2017.

He got stuck in the always-loaded Tide backfield; his two-year total in Tuscaloosa: 151 yards over eight games (one start).

“I didn’t see any frustration in his face,” said Alabama defensive back Jordan Battle, whose locker was a spot or two down from Ford’s. “He just came to work.”

Jerome Ford was at Alabama in 2018-19.
Jerome Ford was at Alabama in 2018-19. [ VASHA HUNT | Associated Press ]

After two stagnant seasons, Ford decided to work elsewhere. He reconnected with Cincinnati, who recruited him hard out of Armwood. He quickly went from Alabama transfer to Cincinnati Bearcat with two goals in mind: contribute and win an AAC championship.

“Anything else would have been a plus,” Ford said.

Ford contributed last year (483 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, including a 79-yarder against Georgia in the Peach Bowl) and starred this year. A player who set a high school goal of scoring 10 touchdowns in a season is tied for fourth nationally with 20 (19 rushing, one receiving).

His value became even more evident in Cincinnati’s November rut. Ford left the Tulsa game with an ankle injury and didn’t play the next week at USF; it’s probably not a coincidence that both games were among the Bearcats’ least impressive performances of the season.

Ford has hit the second goal both seasons, too. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior was the MVP of this year’s AAC championship after ripping through Houston for 187 yards and two touchdowns.

Cincinnati running back Jerome Ford has been an all-conference player this season.
Cincinnati running back Jerome Ford has been an all-conference player this season. [ JEFF DEAN | Associated Press ]

The Bearcats’ 35-20 triumph broke break the Group of Five’s CFP glass ceiling — and put Ford in the unusual position of going against his former teammates with a spot in the national title game on the line.

“It won’t be one of those things where it’s like, ‘Oh, my buddies are over there,’” Ford said. “It will be just like playing another team.”

If the familiarity favors either side, it’s Cincinnati. The Ford who became an all-AAC performer is much different than the Alabama backup. He has added more lower-body strength and hard-yard ability to the elite speed Alabama saw at Armwood.

“I think he’s done a really, really good job of continuing to develop as a player,” Tide coach Nick Saban said.

Related: Why Bryce Young topped our Heisman Trophy ballot

The Tide has continued to develop, too, but the core principles haven’t changed since Ford left. That means he can give his teammates insight into Alabama’s mentality and approach before the biggest game in Cincinnati history.

“He lets you know what the Alabama culture is just so we’re not just hit in the face when we get out there,” Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder said.

Don’t be surprised if Ford is the one trying to hit his former teammates in the face at AT&T Stadium. Alabama’s defensive front should have an advantage against Cincinnati’s offensive line, so the Bearcats’ ground game will depend on Ford’s ability to maximize every carry. Every successful carry gets Cincinnati closer to a score and keeps the ball away from the Tide’s No. 4 scoring offense.

Which means Friday represents a chance for Ford to make a splash on the national scene on his terms, not as the Alabama transfer.

As a Cincinnati Bearcat.

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