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STEVE DeSHAZO: Ford copes with rare adversity at Penn State

STEVE DeSHAZO: Ford copes with rare adversity at Penn State

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With the possible exception of Patrick Mahomes, few people can honestly say they’ve enjoyed themselves in 2020, as disease, poverty and mistrust have spread across the planet.

Devyn Ford can attest. The former North Stafford High School football standout is now Penn State’s starting tailback as a sophomore, but it hasn’t been all glamour.

Ford endured a summer arrest on drug charges (which likely will be dropped) and saw his good friend Journey Brown have to give up football because of a medical issue. His Nittany Lions, ranked in the top 10 nationally in preseason, are stunningly 0-4.

And even when he scored a touchdown in the season opener, Ford was criticized for it, because it opened the door for Indiana’s remarkable come-from-behind overtime victory.

Little wonder, then, that Ford’s position coach, Ja’Juan Seider, told reporters last week: “Through all this process, we’ve forgotten how to have fun.”

Ford spoke to reporters via Zoom on Wednesday for the first time this season. He declined to discuss his August arrest on charges of marijuana and LSD possession; his record can be expunged with good behavior.

And asked about his uncontested touchdown against Indiana, he replied: “We’re just trying to go 1-0 against Iowa this Saturday. That’s all I’ll say about that.”

Clearly, this isn’t how anyone expected Penn State’s season to play out thus far. The Lions were ranked seventh in preseason by The Associated Press, in part based on the return of Brown, who spurned the NFL draft to return for his junior season after a school-record 202-yard rushing effort in January’s Cotton Bowl win over Memphis.

Ford called Brown “my guy, my mentor, my best friend.” But just before Penn State’s coronavirus-delayed season opener, Brown revealed he has a heart condition that required him to give up football.

That meant Ford and fellow sophomore Noah Cain would split the bulk of the Lions’ carries. That is, until Cain injured his ankle in the opener and was lost for the season. That left Penn State’s former embarrassment-of-riches “Lawn Boyz” backfield down to Ford and true freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes.

Said Ford: “[Brown] always told me to prepare like you’re the starter. That’s how I prepared last year.

“I’m not really happy about the situation. I wish those guys would get better, but I’m definitely prepared for the situation. ... When you have that mentality, it makes it easier to make the transition, because you know what you’re doing.”

The results haven’t been satisfactory to anyone in Happy Valley, though. Ford leads the Lions with a modest 207 yards in four games; he routinely surpassed that in a single contest at North Stafford.

Penn State ranks 72nd among 126 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in rushing (158.3 yards per game), largely because they’ve spent much of their games in catchup mode, passing an average of 40 times per game.

And even when Ford scored against Indiana in the opener, he was hammered on social media for it. Trailing by a point, the Hoosiers allowed him to waltz into the end zone with 1:47 remaining. Ford realized the situation too late to stop himself before crossing the goal line, and Indiana drove for a touchdown and two-point conversion, then won in overtime on quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s iconic two-point dive.

Ford took a beating on social media for doing what he’d done all his life, even though the Atlanta Falcons’ Todd Gurley made a similar play in a loss the following day.

“I know it’s the easiest thing to say, but you’ve got to play the next play,” said Seider, his position coach. “I blame myself. ... You talk through it and work through it, but it happened. Maybe I could have [gone] more into detail on the sideline beforehand. But it’s like life; you can’t dwell on what happened yesterday.

“I thought he did a great job tuning that out and focusing on the next week. He had one of the best weeks of practice and preparation I’ve ever seen out of him.”

It hasn’t paid off in a victory yet. Ford scored his first contested touchdown of the season in last week’s 30-23 loss to Nebraska, but the Lions couldn’t overcome a 27-6 halftime deficit--a week after trailing Maryland 28-7 at the break.

“I thought that last week, Devyn and the two young backs, Keyvone and Caziah did some really good things,” Penn State head coach James Franklin told reporters at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “Obviously, Devyn is carrying much of the load, and those other young guys are giving him a blow and are doing some nice things as well. But yeah, I see Devyn growing.”

That growth includes duties that Ford didn’t always have to focus at North Stafford, where coaches began salivating about him while he was in eighth grade. He has just five receptions for 16 yards in four games and has had to learn to protect quarterbacks Will Levis and Sean Clifford.

“I feel like I’ve definitely improved on my pass blocking,” Ford said. “That’s one of the things I wanted to improve on. I think I can still do better. I definitely feel that playing running back isn’t just hitting the hole. There’s a lot of different stuff.”

It’s been an adjustment for Ford--from high school star to backup to sudden starter, and from constant praise to rampant adversity. At Seider’s advice, Ford stayed off social media the week after the opener.

Said Seider: “The same people who pat you on the back will try to tear you down the next day. ... My job is not to let him feel like he’s got to carry the whole weight.

“I’m worried a little bit. I’m trying to take the pressure off him. I feel like he feels. ‘I’ve got to carry the team,’ but you really don’t. He’s a really intelligent kid. He really cares.”

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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