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Paris Ford ready to settle into Pitt’s secondary

September 3, 2018

Pitt safety Paris Ford goes through during drills on the firs day of practice Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

After a celebrated -- if nomadic -- high school career, Paris Ford looks like he’s ready to settle down in Pitt’s secondary.

Since Aug. 3, he’s been doing what he loves as much as anything -- playing football (on both sides of the ball), hanging out with his best buddies and talking a little smack when a pass catcher dares to venture into his territory in the secondary.

Life is good for the wide-eyed redshirt freshman cornerback from Steel Valley (by way of Central Catholic and Seton LaSalle), certainly one of the most coveted recruits brought to Pitt by coach Pat Narduzzi in his first four classes.

Will he be a freshman on the level of Jordan Whitehead, who joined Darrin Hall in 2015 as the first of Narduzzi’s 11 four-stars (six remain)?

Will he ease his way into the lineup slowly, the route taken by Hall, Damar Hamlin and Amir Watts?

Or, will he be forced to wait his turn, something A.J. Davis is still doing in his third training camp and freshman Mychale Salahuddin might have to do this season?

Actually, easing seems to be the way to go for Ford, although that’s not his speed or personality.

In the end, it’s a confusing dilemma for Pitt’s coaches.

Playing all the time might be asking too much of Ford. He’s never played in a collegiate game, and he has stiff competition at cornerback from sophomore Jason Pinnock.

Keeping Ford on the sideline doesn’t make any sense, either. He gets his hands on a lot of balls in the secondary and has the ability to quickly flip possession.

“He’s a natural playmaker,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said.

The bottom line, though, is this: Ford, 20, is still learning. The best part? He’s approaching it seriously, like a student as much as an athlete.

“Coaches’ doors are always open,” he said. “I’m in and out of meetings all the time, getting extra coaching, extra knowledge.”

Senior strong safety Dennis Briggs, a co-captain last season, often lines up with Ford and has noticed his growth.

“I can see the maturity in him,” Briggs said. “He’s asking me questions in the meeting room. He’s always got his notebook out. He genuinely wants to learn the game the right way. He wants to be on the field.

“P’s a little bit ahead of where I was my freshman year.”

Ford is sure of himself, but he expresses his self-confidence matter-of-factly -- not like he has something to prove.

“I feel like I can follow the No. 1 receiver and give him problems,” he said. “Be energetic out there.”

The other aspect of Ford’s game -- the part Narduzzi is reluctant to discuss freely -- is his ability to contribute on offense.

“I hadn’t counted them yet,” Narduzzi said of Ford’s offensive snaps, “but he’s getting some looks.”

“Whatever the team needs, I’m going to get the job done,” said Ford, one of many players running jet sweeps in practice. “Waiting to get the ball in my hands and see what I can do.”

Watson is holding back on his enthusiasm for Ford in the dual role Whitehead played for three years.

“We dabble with Paris,” he said. “We’re trying to just teach him enough to see what he can do. We’re not going to overload him because he’s competing on defense.”

Maybe the best part for Ford this month has been the freedom given him to just play football. Last year, he missed most of training camp while dealing with academic issues and was forced to take a redshirt.

This year, it’s been just football until classes start next week.

“I feel so much more free,” he said. “I was in summer school around this time (last year). I was getting the job done.

“I feel like I’m more mature, being a better person. I feel like I’m taking a step up.”

Part of it is “being around these guys,” he said, mentioning Briggs, junior cornerback Dane Jackson and Avonte Maddox from last season. “Seeing how they carry themselves. Being around them makes you want to live up to their expectations.”

He’s with friends, players he competed with and against in high school. Six players in Pitt’s secondary graduated from WPIAL schools, adding to Ford’s comfort level.

“It’s not like a new face. It’s all familiar faces,” he said. “We all like practicing with each other.”

How all these personalities and talent levels will mesh is unclear. Seven players with starting experience return to the Pitt secondary, but Narduzzi is changing the look nonetheless.

When the NCAA granted schools permission to hire a 10th assistant and last year’s secondary coach Renaldo Hill left for the Miami Dolphins, Narduzzi hired two men for the defensive backs -- Archie Collins to oversee everything and Cory Sanders for the safeties. Finishing next-to-last in the ACC in passing yards allowed (254.2 per game last season) won’t be acceptable.

If it’s a challenge Ford is willing to accept.

“Can’t wait,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

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