Clemson University

Speed merchants

Jacoby Ford (above, fending off Florida State's Anthony Houllis) and C.J. Spiller (below, outrunning Georgia Tech) are vital to Clemson's offense this season.
Jacoby Ford (above, fending off Florida State's Anthony Houllis) and C.J. Spiller (below, outrunning Georgia Tech) are vital to Clemson's offense this season.

Jacoby Ford gave his new Clemson teammates an on-the-field introduction by taking a screen pass, side-stepping one defender and bolting 53 yards the first time he touched the football in his first spring scrimmage.

"I just got the ball and hit (the play)," he said after that practice in spring 2006.

He introduced himself to Clemson fans in much the same way in the fall, exhibiting his take-your-breath speed while scoring on a 92-yard punt return against Florida Atlantic in the season's opener.

He struck from long range against Temple (55-yard pass) and Louisiana Tech (94-yard kickoff return) and ended any suggestion that he only picked on outmatched opponents with a 76-yard reception against South Carolina.

Ford's four scores from 50-plus yards share second place in the school archives for most long-range touchdowns in a season, and his average of 17.3 yards every time he touched the football commands attention.

He racked up those numbers on raw talent. What he lacked in polish and precision, he overcame with speed.

Now, a year later, the Tigers wait to see what he can do in a starting role. Maturity and experience coupled with 2006's production provide reason for great expectations.

More than anyone, he offers the potential to prevent opponents from stacking defenses against the Tigers' running game. Foes who allow him to roam free will pay the price in touchdowns surrendered.

Tigers coach Tommy Bowden has promised a more versatile offense that uses stars James Davis and C.J. Spiller in the game together -- but not both at running back.

Imagine the possibilities. Say, Davis lines up at tailback with Spiller in the slot and Ford as one of the wideouts. Put Spiller in motion away from Ford's side.

"That will put some severe pressure on defenses," said a college coach whose team does not play the Tigers.

If question marks become exclamation points, the 'Thunder and Lightning' offense of Davis and Spiller will need a revised nickname.

"There are big expectations for me; people are expecting a lot," Ford said. "I just want to come in and make some plays."

He must if the Tigers are to erase the sour taste of 2006's late-season skid. Defenses crowded the line of scrimmage and dared Clemson to win with the passing game. Even with Davis and Spiller on the field together, foes will start the season with the same strategy.

"But what happens if Clemson can stretch the defense with deep balls to Ford?" the college coach asked.

"That's in our plans," Spiller said. "(Success) is a matter of spreading the defense."

Ford's speed requires no embellishment; he ran 40 yards in 4.126 seconds at his prep school's combine, and he sizzled for Clemson's track team. He won the ACC indoor championship's 60-yard dash in 6.52 seconds and placed third in the NCAA national meet.

Little wonder, then, that he says the Tigers will focus more on speed this season.

A seldom-mentioned plus: the rules change designed to create more kickoff return opportunities gives the Tigers the chance to get the ball to Spiller and Ford in the open field.

Foes can counter with squib kicks, but defenses cannot hide from the multiple-threat offense.

"The offense is pretty much the same," Ford said, but the personnel will be different. "With C.J. in the slot, defenses will have to respect him. There's James inside, and we can go underneath (with passes), and that will open up everything."

At least, that is the plan, and Ford wonders how defenses will set up against the Tigers.

"(Defenses) are all different in one way or another," he said. "If I can get one-on-one coverage, I like that, and we will have to take advantage of it. Some teams play a lot of zone, and others a lot of man, so we're adjusting all the time."

The Tigers must be a quick study; they will be starting an inexperienced quarterback, and they open the season against Florida State.

"That's a big opportunity for us," Ford said. "We're coming into the game not ranked. It's Monday night and nobody else is playing. It's just us and Florida State. It gives us a chance to make a statement."

If Clemson's statement is positive, expectations will zoom. If the Tigers' expectations zoom, chances are Ford will play one of the leading roles.

More experienced and more polished now, he brings the potential to punish foes that crowd the line of scrimmage. Give him room and get him the ball, and watch out