As I discussed in my film review of Cam Phillips, a pressing need for the Virginia Tech offense was developing a true split end that can beat man coverage and stretch the field vertically. The Hokies passing game was better than expected last season, but the lack of a deep threat allowed opposing defenses to play their safeties in inverted coverage, often coming forward immediately at the snap without needing to worry about providing deep help to corners in man coverage. This had two effects. First, defenses had safeties flying into the box to stop the run just after the snap. This allowed defenses to play seven men in the box, and bring a safety late from angles that the offensive line and tight ends could not identify prior to the snap. Second, it meant that the safeties could help the linebackers and nickel corners on the crossing routes and misdirection routes that Coach Loeffler had the most success with throughout the year.
At 6-2, 180 pounds, Isaiah Ford (Trinity Christian, Jacksonville, Florida), like Phillips, isn't the prototypical 6-5, 205 build split end that you often see one on one with corners on the boundary. However, Ford has incredible acceleration and can change gears quickly to get open behind defenses. He also is very versatile. In helping Trinity Christian to win the Class 3A state title, he took snaps as a split end, a flanker, a runner on jet sweeps, and in the championship game he scored two touchdowns with his feet as a wildcat quarterback.
Ford finished his senior season with 717 yards and 12 touchdowns receiving, as well as 201 yards and 4 touchdowns rushing. He also passed for a touchdown. On signing day he was averaging 31.2 points per game as a guard for Trinity Christian's basketball team. He plans to play both football and basketball at Virginia Tech, putting him in the pantheon of former two-sport athletes like Andre Davis, Bryan Randall, and Jeff King.
Most of the Hokie receiving corps (including fellow incoming freshmen Cam Phillips and Jaylen Bradshaw) are more suited to being flankers. They use the width of the field and their quickness in space to get open. The split end position has less depth, with only Josh Stanford showing success in getting off of press coverage on the boundary last season. Ford will need to bulk up to deal with the physicality of ACC corners, but he displays the straight line speed, change of pace, and elite ball skills to go up and snatch a 50/50 deep ball.
The first thing that pops off the tape is his initial quickness off the line of scrimmage. Corner technique in man coverage is to turn and run once their cushion (the safe amount of space needed between the receiver and a backpedalling corner to prevent the receiver from beating him deep) is threatened. They turn their hips out of backpedal and turn to sprint deep. Ford gets off the line of scrimmage so quickly that the corner can't get turned to run with him.
Here we see how Ford can help the Hokie offense in the red zone with both his speed and ball skills. Here, Trinity has the ball on the 15-yard line, and he is aligned as the split end to the boundary. He predictably faces press coverage.
The corner aligns to take away the outside release. Ford is so fast off the snap. He crosses the corner's face, runs through his outside shoulder, and the corner just can't recover. Unlike Phillips, there really isn't a leverage move to beat the press. He just goes right by him. He is incredibly fluid in full stride, but he can shake coverage by leaning one way and then changing direction without losing speed. He can also slow down to let the defender think that he is cutting, and then he can speed back up to the outside. This is perfect for the slant and go ("sluggo") route that the Hokies could not get to break open last season. Here is a terrific example of Ford running a sluggo.
Ford sells the slant and baits the corner by going three-quarters speed and turning his shoulders to the inside. The corner beats him to the slant, but Ford turns on the afterburners and gets back to the outside. It is a different way of beating man on the boundary. Now, would you like to see more film of him using strength to get off the line? Yes, but he certainly has the natural athleticism that is most critical. Coach Gentry can help with the rest.
Finally, Ford has outstanding ball skills. His film features several plays where he runs fade routes. He goes up and attacks the ball at the highest point on those jump balls. His basketball experience helps him to time his jump and track the football that gives him an advantage over shorter corners.
You will recall, early last season Coach Loeffler tried to use Demitri Knowles as a deep threat. Demitri has terrific deep speed, but clearly wasn't comfortable going up and making a play for the football. In those situations, you need a receiver who can go up and take the ball away from the corner or at least become a defender and help his quarterback. Last season, Loeffler had to abandon the deep ball because interceptions where Knowles could not make a play on the ball absolutely killed momentum in several of the early non-conference games.
As the season progressed, the deep passing game went away. But, with the Hokie running game a priority and an inexperienced quarterback, Coach Loeffler will want to stretch the field and get some big plays for points. It will be much more difficult to execute long sustained drives without experience. Isaiah Ford gives him an option that can stretch the field.
The film also raises some concerns. On jump balls, he is fantastic at going up and ripping it away. But, on several other highlights (such as the sluggo I highlighted above and several other touchdowns on his highlight reel) he lets the ball get into his body before he makes the catch. Stanford has a habit of doing the same thing. When you don't attack the ball, it has a tendency to contact your body or pads and bounce off. It also gives cornerbacks that extra millisecond to make a play on the football. It is a habit that Coach Moorehead will attack from day one in Blacksburg.
Versatility in the Running Game
Scott Loeffler tried to use his receivers in different ways to compliment the running game last season with varying degrees of success. Carlis Parker was very effective against UCLA, however the D.J. Coles experiment as an option pitchman was a disaster against the Crimson Tide. Besides being a terrific basketball player, Ford brings the ability to contribute both in the running game and on punt returns. As noted above, he has terrific speed and has the ability to slow down and speed back up at will. That messes up the angles that a defender takes to make a tackle, so Ford doesn't necessarily have to pull out a Madden 97 jump cut to make the defender miss.
Here, Trinity utilizes Ford running a jet sweep. As we saw in the Sun Bowl, the jet sweep is a staple play in Coach Loeffler's vision for his offense. It is rendered even more successful by having a variety of receivers that can all effectively stretch the field, break a long run off a screen, and run the sweep. Versatility makes it difficult for a defense to take away an offense's bread and butter play.
As I mentioned above, Ford has special straight line speed. It allows him to get outside the slot's block. Unlike some of the current options, he has the bend to get turned up field.
Ford has surprising power as well. As previously discussed, Ford took a good amount of snaps in the state championship game and scored two touchdowns. One came on a long run on a quarterback counter where he showed little fear of challenging contact. Once through the line, we can again see his straight-line speed.
Also, he doesn't seem to be concerned about taking a hit to make a play. Here, he runs over a defender at the end of a jet sweep. There are several other plays on his various highlight reels on Hudl where he shows off a pretty good stiff arm. That physical play often rewards his team with a few additional yards following contact.
Perhaps no aspect of the Hokie football team performed as poorly as the punt return team. Returners Kyshoen Jarrett and Willie Byrn were so ineffective gaining positive yardage on punts that a fair catch felt like a win. Some of Jarrett's reckless decisions to return in the face of tremendous coverage made every forced punt an adventure. Ford should have an immediate opportunity to contribute as a punt returner. With the rover position so critical for Bud Foster, and a complete lack of experienced depth behind Jarrett, I am sure Coach Beamer would like one of his younger players to win the returner role and generate better field position than his senior defensive captain.
Ford's speed and his decisiveness to get up the middle of the field make him a likely option fielding punts. I was impressed with how quickly he got up field on punt returns, and instead of running away from guys, he runs right into tight spaces and go through the seams. As Maryland's Will Likely showed us last year, punt coverage is most vulnerable right up the middle. Ford makes the catch, plants his foot, and gets straight up field.
Ford isn't as refined a receiver as Cam Phillips, but he could present a more immediate vertical threat. Ford can also contribute in the punt return game and fits Scot Loeffler's mold of a receiver the versatility to provide counters in the running game. With Josh Stanford firmly entrenched as the starting split end, Ford doesn't have to be ready to contribute right away. However, he gives Coach Loeffler a big receiver that can stretch the field. This forces opposing safeties to play deeper, which opens up things for the running game. If Ford can get off of physical press coverage, I expect him to be in the rotation right away unless Carlis Parker has significantly improved as a receiving threat.