The 90 Illini #22: Luke Ford
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I'm not sure we've ever had a player in his exact shoes. When top-100 recruits come to Illinois, the usually play right away. We're not Clemson where you can have some player ranked #55 nationally and he has to wait three years to get on the field. So to have a top-100 player getting his first snaps his third season - that's an interesting scenario.
What I mean by that: technically, he could play nine games and then go off to the NFL. Lots of players from that 2018 top-100 list will be declaring after this season. I don't see him as that kind of recruit (a "proves in only nine games that he's ready" kind of player), but technically, he could do that.
He could also be in Champaign for this season and three more. With the Covid rule, he basically got a year back - his eligibility does not run out until after the 2023 season now. So if he's not NFL ready - and the last Illini player who was "NFL ready" before his senior season was Akeem Spence after the 2012 season (Betiku thought he was NFL ready, but according to the NFL, he wasn't) - then he's going to play four full seasons.
I want to say that one more time. I see a lot of "yeah, but Beason might declare after the 2021 season" and every time I feel the need to point out that we've had two players declare the last eight seasons with only one of them drafted. Until there's a track record of it, I expect all Illini players to exhaust their eligibility. It's a bit different with the Covid rule - Jake Hansen could technically return for a sixth year next year but he'll be done with grad school and probably be ready to give the draft a shot - but still, I assume full eligibility for all.
22. Luke Ford
Uniform number: 82
Year in school: Redshirt Sophomore (3 years to play 3; with the Covid rule, technically 4 to play 4)
Height: 6'-6" -- Weight: 250 lbs.
Hometown: Carterville, Illinois
High School: Carterville HS
Former team: Transfer from Georgia
Five best offers: Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan
Tom Cruise rating:
2019 statistics: Sat out the season after transferring from Georgia.
You probably know his background better than any other player on this list. After the Army All American Bowl junior combine in January of 2017, suddenly we learn that the top high school tight end in the country might be in... Carterville, Illinois? That happens only once every few years (a non-Chicago national top-50 player from Illinois, like AJ Epenesa at Edwardsville), so we paid full attention.
He seemed jazzed about the Illini after his visit that spring (and apparently almost verballed), but then he went to Arkansas and verballed. That was an emotional decision which he backed off later. He visited several other places, like Alabama and Georgia, and eventually landed on Georgia. After one fall there, he transferred back to his home state at Christmas. And I'm not sure if you heard but he did not receive a waiver from the NCAA to be able to play right away last season.
I'll say it this way. I think he'll be a big part of what we do offensively yet after the season you'll say that we didn't use Ford enough. Here's what I mean.
- Of the three tight ends, I think it's pretty clear that Ford is the best blocker. Daniel Barker has struggled with the blocking side of things, and Daniel Imatorbhebhe was not known as a blocker at USC, so it has to be Ford by default. But also, the reason he was listed as the #1 tight end in the country on Rivals is because he's 6'-6", 250 lbs with long arms and a powerful frame. When you're designing a play where the tight end needs to kick out the outside 'backer, you're pretty much picturing someone who looks exactly like Luke Ford to accomplish that (big, powerful, can run).
- Because we have three tight ends, the passes will be spread around. Ford won't get as many as you're probably hoping but he'll still be out there a ton.
- This offense uses tight ends a lot but doesn't get them the ball the same way, say, Wisconsin or Iowa's offense uses the tight end. So he'll be on the field, a lot just probably not catching 6 for 71 yards.
My guess as to how his career goes? Feet wet year this year. Big season in 2021 and there's discussion of him leaving early. And then All Big Ten season in 2022 and he's off to the NFL.