University of Miami

This 6-5, 305-pound mountain of a man is helping Miami survive loss of Gerald Willis  

Miami Hurricanes defensive line coach Todd Stroud talks camp, choosing lineup

Miami Hurricanes defensive line coach Todd Stroud spoke with media on August 6, 2019, about the success of training camp, and choosing the defensive lineup for the upcoming season.
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Miami Hurricanes defensive line coach Todd Stroud spoke with media on August 6, 2019, about the success of training camp, and choosing the defensive lineup for the upcoming season.

University of Miami coach Manny Diaz once compared defensive tackle Jonathan Ford to an unopened Christmas gift.

“You had one left under the tree,’’ Diaz said in August 2017, when Ford, a former consensus three-star prospect out of Fort Lauderdale Dillard High, became the last freshman player to arrive at fall camp. “You’re putting your tree up a couple weeks after Christmas and all of a sudden there’s one left in there.”

These days, Ford is more like the star on top of the Christmas tree — at least this fall and during spring before he hurt his wrist and missed several practices. With former Canes second-team All-American Gerald Willis now battling for a spot on the Baltimore Ravens, Ford, a 6-5, 305-pound mountain of a man, will make his first start opposite veteran Pat Bethel on Aug. 24 in the season opener against the Florida Gators.

“For different guys, the light comes on at different moments,’’ coach Manny Diaz said. “For Jon it was this past spring practice. And boy, when that light came on, it came on in a big way. He has been really, really disruptive ever since.

“Sometimes, you look around and you’re one of the young guys. Then, all of a sudden you look around and you’re like, ‘Wow. I’m one of the older guys.’ We always thought he had the tools to be a big-time, 4-3 Miami defensive tackle.”

Ford, whose wrist is now fully healed, played in 10 games last year and finished with eight tackles and two tackles for loss. His freshman season he played in seven games and had one tackle, likely getting game action instead of redshirting because Willis that year had taken an indefinite leave of absence and Courtel Jenkins had transferred.

There was never a question about his physical gifts, Ford was told recently. But what precipitated the massive improvement in his now-imposing play?

“When people keep telling you what you can be, how good you can be,’’ Ford said, “I guess something in your head just tells you, ‘Man, go hard every day — just take it serious. I guess that’s what happened to me. I just started taking it serious and everything started playing out.’’

“Obviously, he has a great body,’’ UM defensive line coach Todd Stroud said. “He’s learning and he’s embracing what we’re doing. Jon Ford has had an amazing camp. He got hurt midway through the spring and missed about seven practices. He had a great summer. He really hasn’t missed a step.”

On Thursday night after practice, rush end Jon Garvin, expected to be among the elite defensive ends in the country, concurred with his position coach. “He’s doing well,’’ Garvin said of Ford. “Came a long way. He made the decision to be a top-tier guy and he is now, so that’s just what it is. He’s big, fast. He moves and he dominates whoever is in front of him. He’s always able to get in the backfield and make a play.’’

UM center Corey Gaynor, who will make his first start since 2017 in the opener, was asked Thursday how much it helps the mostly inexperienced offensive line having a dominant defensive line to practice against. “Tremendously,’’ Gaynor said. “We get to go against some of the best of the best every day in practice, and a lot of teams can’t say they can do that. They definitely raise our level.’’

Gaynor said Ford has been playing well, “filling gaps and playing aggressive like we need him to be.’’

“He gives us a great look every day — one-on-ones, inside drills, he’s always at his best.”

Ford, who chose Miami over offers from Kentucky, Tennessee, USC, Auburn, Michigan and Ohio State among others, is confident the Hurricanes will be well prepped to face the Gators at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.

“Oh, we ready,’’ he said. “We’ve been going hard every day. I have no doubt we’re going to be ready for this game.’’

Redshirt freshman quarterback Jarren Williams, who was named the Miami starter Monday, said Thursday that the energy has been high among his teammates this week.

“Things have been really good,’’ Williams said. “The guys are working really hard.”

Williams said he has “definitely’’ been “a little more vocal” since being named the starter — “just making sure the guys hear my voice and making sure I’m getting everybody going. If somebody’s doing something wrong, I try to go and correct them and let them know how to do it right. Really trying to be that leader on the field.”

Garvin Thursday on freshman left offensive tackle Zion Nelson: “The way he has changed from the beginning…It’s rough coming into college dealing with the college guys. Now he’s been able to up his game [and] coming to the point that he’s been a challenge for everybody — at times can show flashes of dominance. “

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Miami Herald sports writer Susan Miller Degnan has been the Miami Hurricanes football beat writer since 2000, the season before the Canes won it all. She has won several APSE national writing awards and has covered everything from Canes baseball to the College Football Playoff to major marathons to the Olympics.