TAMPA ― At its core, the Kerwin Bell offense is steeped in precision. Spacing and timing are prerequisites. Because the quarterback typically is trained to throw to certain spots, the ball and receiver must converge there on cue.
“It’s a very complex offense,” USF quarterback Blake Barnett said.
Which made the notion of transforming a running back into a receiver iffy. Bell, USF’s new offensive coordinator, was smitten with 5-foot-5 sophomore Johnny Ford’s low 40 time and lower center of gravity, but wasn’t sure how it might translate to slot receiver.
Could Ford run disciplined routes? Could this 800-yard rusher develop a structured clairvoyance with a quarterback?
“We put him there with the idea that we can’t play him there if he can’t play receiver at this level,” Bell said.
“If you do that, then it sort of becomes a gimmicky deal where you put him out there, but you’re basically bringing him in the backfield to run him. You can’t really throw many balls to him down the field because he just can’t run the routes you need him to at the quality we want 'em.”
So with major hopes and mild apprehension, the Ford experiment commenced.
Nearly four weeks later, it’s arguably the most encouraging development of USF’s spring practice. In Saturday’s public situational scrimmage at Clearwater Central Catholic, Barnett hooked up with Ford for touchdown passes of 18 and 22 yards.
Last season, he totaled three catches out of the backfield.
“Man, he’s been a surprise,” said Bell, who again unveils his offense (or parts of it) in Saturday’s 1 p.m. spring game at Corbett Stadium. “He’s been one of our best man (coverage) beaters. He runs really crisper routes; it’s unbelievable how he’s caught on to it.”
Ford hasn’t been made available to reporters so far this spring, but by all indications, he is relishing his new role in the slot, where he and Michigan transfer Eddie McDoom appear the top candidates to replace 240-pound force of nature Tyre McCants.
Stands to reason he’d embrace it. Though Ford ran for 787 yards and eight touchdowns on 115 carries last year as a diminutive, dynamic complement to 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Cronkrite, he essentially was rendered one-dimensional in former coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s veer-and-shoot system.
“I think I might have thrown maybe two or three passes to him in a game,” Barnett said. “I know Chris (Oladokun) threw a touchdown pass to him.”
By contrast, Ford was Coach Helder Valle’s most significant chess piece his senior year at Miami High.
A full-time tailback who often line up in the slot, or even on the back side of a four-receiver set, Ford totaled more than 1,600 yards and 20 TDs and caught 19 passes, leading the Stingarees to their first state semifinal berth in nearly a quarter-century.
In the Class 8A region finals, when Miami exploded for 22 fourth-quarter points for a 28-22 win against Miami Columbus, Ford sparked the rally with a pivotal one-handed catch. Valle even inserted Ford ― all 168 pounds of him ― at middle linebacker late in the game.
“If you would ask me one word to describe Johnny Ford, it’s electrifying,” said Valle, now coach at Miami’s Immaculata-La Salle High. “He’s really good out of his breaks, he understands spacing, and more important, he’s very competitive.”
In Bell’s offense, he stands as the early favorite to lead the Bulls in all-purpose yardage. His fleetness makes him a threat to parlay a quick screen or curl route into an explosive play, and he seems custom-designed for periodic jet sweeps.
And though USF appears stocked at tailback with Cronkrite, senior Trevon Sands and emerging walk-on Odunayo Seriki, Ford is certain to get his share of conventional handoffs as well.
“We’ve sold him on the fact this position here just utilizes all his talents, not only catching the football down the field but catching screens in space, bringing him in the backfield, letting him be a runner,” Bell said.
“So hopefully...with him and (Jordan) Cronkrite being in the backfield, it’s gonna really utilize the talent we have here on offense.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
USF spring game
Where/when: Corbett Stadium, USF campus, Saturday, 1
Live stream: TheIdentityTB.com
Need to know: Normal pregame tailgating activities will be allowed in campus lots. Fans are encouraged to bring blankets and utilize the grass berms surrounding the playing field for seating areas. A number of pregame festivities (food trucks, live DJ, inflatables and a “Fan Pro Day”) will be held outside the stadium.