Jerome Ford will be making his first NFL start Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. The second-year player who doesn’t say much, and until the second half of the season opener never played much, is now the Cleveland Browns’ feature running back in the wake of Nick Chubb’s season-ending knee injury.
Ford introduced himself to Browns fans with his first career touchdown on the next play following Chubb’s injury in Pittsburgh, a 3-yard catch from Deshaun Watson. Early in the third quarter, Ford started on a run to the right side and cut back across the field before sprinting to daylight and going 69 yards — with the help of a downfield block from Watson — before getting tripped up inside the 1-yard line.
Two weeks ago, Ford had all of eight career carries for 12 yards. He’d been around for 2022, but only as a rookie backup and kickoff returner. On the Friday before Ford got 15 carries in mop-up duty in the Browns’ season opener, he got what he considers his real NFL initiation.
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During the Browns’ final special teams meeting of their standard work week, special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone popped on Ford’s high school highlight tape. It showed Ford shoving around and sprinting past both blockers and defenders. Ford played running back, wide receiver and defensive end at Armwood High School in Seffner, Fla., and out of nowhere, his past life was up on the screen for what became a jury of his NFL peers.
“There were some haters in there,” Ford said.
Ford said Ventrone’s unannounced switch from practice tape and kick coverage diagrams to footage of him as a high schooler “made the room a little wild. Guys were yelling. Some were impressed, but a lot of them said stuff like, ‘You weren’t playing anybody. Of course those dudes couldn’t catch you.’”
That’s where Browns linebacker and captain Anthony Walker Jr. came in. Walker, who also grew up in Florida, joined the screaming by standing up for Ford and saying that his highlights came against quality competition.
“I fact-checked it,” Walker said. “He’s as good as advertised.
“That tape was really good. One of the best I’ve seen. I’ve never seen anybody play running back and D-end. Catching the ball, returning, getting to the quarterback. He was good. Bubba does that to get guys going, and he made a great first choice with Jerome.”
Now, Ford is the Browns’ first choice to step in for Chubb. And now, there’s no doubting the competition he’ll face.
It’s been a quick ascension. Because he was in a running back room with current NFL starters Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, Ford played in just eight games over two years at Alabama before transferring to the University of Cincinnati in 2020. He was not the starter on Cincinnati’s 2020 team, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry and scored eight rushing touchdowns. He ran for 97 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a performance that put him on NFL radars.
The job was his in 2021, and he had five 100-yard games for a team that went unbeaten in the regular season before falling to Ford’s old team, Alabama, in the College Football Playoff. Ford rushed for 1,319 yards and 19 touchdowns and earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where the Browns saw him catch passes out of the backfield.
Though their running back room was stocked at the time, the Browns thought enough of Ford’s speed that they considered him a fifth-round steal when they got him in April 2022. He spent his rookie season playing on special teams and learning. Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who’s back with the Browns in the wake of Chubb’s injury, got most of the touches. D’Ernest Johnson was third in line and played mostly on special teams. Ford got backup carries in two games and logged 145 special teams snaps.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski has been clear that Ford is now the Browns’ starter. Hunt was signed Tuesday to provide experience and play in short-yardage situations. In late August, the Browns traded for Pierre Strong Jr., who became the No. 2 behind Ford in Pittsburgh.
“Jerome is very young (but) he’s talented,” Hunt said. “He’s got a lot of speed and he’s made a big jump. He’s just growing and getting better. So, I’m excited to see us paired together, how we can wear down defenses and break runs.”
Ford scored 19 of his 30 college rushing touchdowns in his senior season. He did not return kicks or punts in college, but the Browns made him their primary kickoff returner his rookie year, in large part because they just wanted to get him on the field — and to give him a chance to show off his explosiveness. He opened a November game in Miami with a 48-yard kickoff return, and his average of 24.1 yards per return ranked in the top half of the league among those who had at least 15 returns. That’s not bad for a rookie in a new gig — and now Ford is a second-year player in a new gig, one that’s calling for full-time duty and as many runs as possible like the one he had in Pittsburgh to add to his NFL highlight tape.
“A lot of our young guys hear this from me all the time about staying ready because you just never know when your opportunity is going to come,” Stefanski said. “And I think Jerome’s been a great example of that as somebody that works really hard on the field, in the weight room, in the meeting rooms. He’s somebody that really is diligent about the preparation. You just don’t know when your time is going to come. So I’d applaud him for his preparation and being ready for that moment.”
The Browns made Ford their No. 2 running back to start this season. They held him out of the Hall of Fame Game, and a few days later in practice, Ford suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the rest of the preseason. So he entered his second season only having the minimal NFL experience he gained in his rookie year, when he played 14 total offensive snaps.
In the offseason, running backs coach Stump Mitchell made clear he had high expectations for Ford. Mitchell said Ford was capable of putting up the kind of numbers Chubb had become accustomed to producing if Ford was willing to work on refining the non-running parts of his game.
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“Jerome’s got a skill set that allows him to do anything and everything,” Mitchell said. “Pass protection, we worked a lot (on that) this spring, so that was really the only thing we didn’t really have a good handle on because he didn’t do it a lot in college. We’re on his butt about it. He’s bought in.
“I think his growth has been just in having confidence in himself, getting along better with his teammates. That’s a huge thing. And understanding that there are the things that come with being a rookie that he really didn’t accept last year. Well, he’s still (like) a rookie, so he’s going to do some of those things that he didn’t do last year.”
What was on that high school highlight tape?
“Kick returns, jet sweeps, a few sacks, a couple blocked punts,” Ford said. “There’s a catch on there, too. I make one guy miss and I’m gone.”
Way gone. Ford showed off the kind of speed that made him a four-star recruit by 247Sports, the No. 8 all-purpose back in his class and a top-35 prospect in the state of Florida. He played as a pass rusher and sacked “a bunch” of opposing quarterbacks. Ford remembers that one of them was Michael Penix, who’s now a Heisman Trophy candidate at the University of Washington and a potential early-round draft pick in April.
Six years later, Ventrone was showing all that in a team meeting.
“Showing high school highlight tapes is something I’ve been doing since I became a coordinator (in 2018 with the Indianapolis Colts), just as a way to break things up, bring a little energy to the room on Friday,” Ventrone said. “Jerome’s is probably the best I’ve ever seen.”
Now that he’s the starting running back, Ford will be in the Friday special teams meeting only because of his role on the hands team versus potential onside kicks. He’ll be critiquing his teammates’ high school highlight tapes the way they did with his.
“Bubba doing that was unexpected,” Ford said. “He was asking me about getting it, but I thought he wanted to show a blocked punt. I really didn’t know. I’m not a guy who likes to be put on the spot, but it was kind of nostalgic, kind of cool.”
Now, Ford’s day-to-day routine has changed. His role has changed. And Chubb’s injury has brought Ford the chance to be known — and highly scrutinized — well outside the Browns’ special teams meeting room.
“Seeing Nick go down, it was awful,” Ford said. “He means a lot more than just football to us. Well to me, he’s like a big brother. And we all look up (to him) and we wish we could give what he gives to the team and have his work ethic.
“(I’ve been) just walking in his shadow, trying to do everything that he does so when the time comes, whenever he stepped off the field, there was no dropoff when I go on. To see him get injured was a shock. So now it’s just taking what I’ve learned from Nick and trying to apply it every day.”
(Top photo: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)