CLEMSON — All summer long, Brandon Ford focused on the skills he thought he’d need for success as Clemson’s starting tight end.
Blocking. Physicality. Beating blockers at the line of scrimmage.
Catching the ball seemed second nature for the converted wide receiver – just grab it and go.
“When the ball hits my hand, I can go with it, because I’m a natural catcher,” Ford said.
It seemed that way until the season opener against Auburn, when the senior made three crucial drops on a national stage.
“The issue was fundamentals,” Ford said. “It came back to bite me in the butt.”
Over the last month, Ford has rebuilt confidence in his own hands and in his connection with junior quarterback Tajh Boyd, and the results have been smashing. Entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Boston College, he has three touchdowns in his last two games, and ranks second on Clemson’s roster in touchdowns, receptions (13) and receiving yardage (175).
“You’ve got to be confident to be able to perform,” Ford said this week. “Without confidence you don’t think you can do it. You can’t get what you want done. To have the confidence you can block that guy, you can go out and make plays in the passing and running game, that shows you’re ready for it. If you don’t have that confidence, it can be a terrible thing out there.”
His emergence has been the culmination of a two-year transition from a slow-of-foot 200-pound wide receiver to an athletic 240-pound tight end who can block and catch with ease.
Ford’s high school coaches and Dwayne Allen, the 2011 John Mackey Award winner, All-American and Indianapolis Colts rookie both said he’d make an excellent tight end; when Allen declared for the NFL draft last January, he told Ford he was leaving the position in his hands.
Now, Ford believes them.
“Now that I’m here, I joke I should have done it earlier,” he said. “Now that I’m here, I’m happy with what I’m doing.”
This week, Ford drew praise from coaches and teammates for his four-catch, 69-yard, two-touchdown effort at Florida State; coach Dabo Swinney said it was his best overall game.
Ford seemed happiest with how he held up against the Seminoles’ deep, physical defensive line.
“It’s more of a mindset,” he said. “Some players are intimidated by some teams who have great players. I always told myself I have to play physical at the position I’m at to be effective in the run game, It starts with the 3-back and offensive line.
“One thing I did was try to execute and out-physical the guy in front of me. This game was very important to me because I wanted my team to win. It was a big game, and big boys come out in games like that – I came out to play.”
It was a vastly different feeling than what Ford experienced following the Auburn win. Although he had five catches for 51 yards and laid a devastating block for quarterback Tajh Boyd on a key third-down conversion, the drops had fans buzzing.
“The one thing I said to myself was that I’ve got to work on fundamentals,” Ford said. “The whole fall, summer and spring, I was just working on being physical and forgetting about the little things, tucking in the ball.”
He worked with a JUGS machine and spent extra time in practice focusing on catching the ball, and Boyd returned the favor, throwing a spectacular over-the-shoulder strike for a 30-yard touchdown against Furman.
“It wasn’t a hard catch,” Ford said. “I actually thought he was going to lay it in there because I was so wide-open but he just threw it over my shoulder, and I just adjusted to it.”
In Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense, a reliable tight end who can block while stretching defenses vertically is a key element. Boyd has targets like Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown, but Ford is an equally important piece.
“Me and Tajh have great chemistry together,” Ford said. “Sometimes he needs me as much as I need him. It’s a great combination with the other guys – we’ve got so many weapons.”
Ford’s goal: be as reliable as any of them, and then some.
“I always tell Tajh, no matter where you throw it, I’ll make that catch for you,” he said. “My thing is to not drop a ball.”