Poona Ford: When a Career Embodies a Program

Poona Ford (Will Gallagher/IT)

Poona Ford (Will Gallagher/IT)

I’ve been intrigued by Poona Ford since he committed to Texas. I once likened him to a 6-8, 300 pound DT placed in a trash compactor. A man who grew up living in Jupiter’s gravity.

Of course, I’m interested in any player that commits to Texas, but I love athletes that push the boundaries of conventional wisdom, test our understanding of comps and force us to re-evaluate assumptions. Not unlike a Maurice Jones-Drew at RB or Sam Mills at LB. Or Charles Barkley as a 6-4 power forward and Lebron James as a 6-9, 260 pound point forward. Or Mike Tyson as a 5-11 heavyweight champion.

In 2014, I wrote of the recruit Poona Ford:

Ford is a mutant – a rare mix of seemingly contradictory attributes on the edges of the human bell curve. And it’s clear that evaluators have no idea what to do with a player with five star film and measurables and one star physical specs. Recruits, like real estate, are most often assessed based on comps. And when you can’t find the relevant comps, assessing the true value of a prospect relies on your ability to understand what really matters and what’s just white noise.

I ultimately predicted great success for Ford, but it has been an interesting road getting there. It’s a story of the Longhorn program over the last few years: squandered potential struggling to be unlocked. His senior year bolsters my hopes for a program renewal that requires getting good, hardworking talent and then employing competent resource management.

Ford started 30 games at Texas. He flashed in his first three years, but objectively it was always a mixed bag. Stop me if this sounds familiar: He played before he was ready. His deployment in scheme was highly questionable as it didn’t play to his strengths. Worst of all, our S&C decision to layer on bad weight to make him “harder to move” made it harder for Ford to move. It robbed him of his special first step. Which made him easier to move. We took away the defining attribute that made him dangerous and deployed him as a traditional 2 or 3 technique like he was Gerald McCoy or Shaun Rogers. That’s not Ford.

The story of larger Longhorn program decline played out in yet another athlete’s career.

Until his senior year. 2017 brought a new staff and new eyes. Todd Orlando probably rubbed his in disbelief. He saw a special athlete improperly trained trapped in a bad body playing traditional DT. So they restored his body and his first step, played him over the center, told him to stop catching blocks and to use his burst to sprint into backfields and disrupt. In a matter of months, we had a new team leader and a new player. Remember Herman’s comments from the Spring?

“You want to separate a guy, because I do nearly every day in front of the team at practice, it’s Poona FordPoona Ford, because if you’re a defensive player on our team and you want to see the fanatical, championship effort that you need to play with snap in and snap out, then you need to look at number 95. If we can get 11 guys on the defense playing as hard as Poona Ford, look out.”

Unsurprisingly, Poona was the most consistent performer on the Longhorn defense all year. And if you read my postmortems and Coach’s report cards, you know we both had full on man crushes for the senior Poonatrator. Big 12 coaches also noticed: Ford was co-Big 12 Defensive Lineman of The Year.

So what the heck does he have prove to get drafted? It all gets back to those pesky comps. We can talk about how special our house is all day. The realtor rolls his eyes, enters 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, the square footage and the neighborhood and let’s you know its value. Unless it really is special. For some reason not accounted for in traditional metrics.

Once again, Ford has to prove that’s he not in the fat part of the bell curve. Poona wisely accepted invitations from East-West Shrine Bowl and the Senior Bowl. The fact that he was invited to both is important. Those rosters are filled with the help of NFL personnel men and their keen interest in Poona is no surprise. Poona’s entire draft viability rests on how he practices and performs in those environments.

At the Shine Bowl, Poona measured:

  • 5’11
  • 309
  • 8 1/2″ hands
  • 33 1/2″ arms
  • 79 3/8″ wingspan

Any defensive lineman under 6-2 starts to raise eyebrows. A defensive lineman under 6-0 gets raised eyebrows, a sigh, a shrug and a toss of their nameplate into the recycling bin. Do I really want to own that draft pick, wonders the scout. Do I really want to explain that guy to my owner, thinks the GM.

Poona Ford. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Poona Ford. (Will Gallagher/IT)

But when you look at hand size and wingspan, you realize that’s he’s comparable to a NBA small forward. On a 5-11 frame. Can Poona grab his wallet in his back pocket reaching over his shoulder? What happens if he kills it in those practices the way he terrorized Big 12 centers in 2017?

Suddenly, scouts and GMs start scrambling for those all important comps. Enter Aaron Donald. Now, let’s be clear: Ford isn’t Donald – at 6’1, 285, Donald ran a 4.6 40 and a 4.3 short shuttle at the NFL combine and he moves like a cat – but the fact that he exists helps the Ford story. Even more helpful to Ford are more human DTs like the Vikings’ Will Sutton (6-1), a solid third rounder from Arizona State. Unhelpful to him is the cautionary tale of USC’s Sedrick Ellis (6-1): a 1st round pick who effectively busted largely due to his size and inability to deal with elite NFL OL. But we’re not worried much about a 1st round bust. The GM is weighing whether Ford is worth a 5th or 6th round flyer.

If a NFL scheme wants a penetrating, burrowing nose tackle with tremendous power (and he may still have some S&C upside yet unrealized – imagine what Ford would have been with four years of Yancy) and the ability to play longer than his stats suggest, he’s in the discussion. How that discussion goes rests largely on how Poona performs against a quality slate of interior OL during these eval bowls. If more athletic skilled OL can neutralize his first step and bury his burrow, then Ford’s journey becomes a series of camp invites, try outs and cups of coffee.

Whatever happens, I’ll miss Poona Ford. Not only for his outstanding character and relentless play on the field, but because he’s a reminder of how quickly potential can be realized with the right deployment.

So Poona Ford’s story of hope continues. As does our own.