Hawaii football: Eugene Ford revs engine at nickel

Nickelback Eugene Ford helped up teammate Cedric Byrd II after making contact during practice at Aloha Stadium last Saturday. / Photo by Darryl Oumi, Special to the Star-Advertiser

The first time Eugene Ford took the nickelback position out for a spin, it felt like driving on a freshly paved highway.

Last Nov. 17, Ford, then a sophomore, slid over from cornerback for the first time on senior night against UNLV. Hawaii came back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to stun the Rebels, 35-28.

“First game at a different position, we came back and won. That was big right there,” said Ford, who’s primarily played nickel ever since — the following two games of the 2018 season, plus the spring, and now 2019 fall camp.

Ford’s responsibilities have changed a little from when he did this Q&A with Warrior World last Oct. 17.

Ford, a junior, and redshirt freshman Kai Kaneshiro, another converted cornerback, are in the midst of a hearty competition at the position.

“High tides raise all ships,” said defensive coordinator Corey Batoon, who works with the defensive backs. “Those guys are really working in concert. It’s not one guy taking over. They both have their strengths and their weaknesses. The competition, when you get out here, it’s been good. It goes back to spring, because when we made that move with Kai in the spring, I feel real comfortable with those guys. They’ve shared reps, 1s and 2s. I feel we have really good depth there at that position.”

Redshirt freshman Kalamaku Kuewa and freshman Travon Killins are also competing at nickel.

Batoon explained that the nickel, a fifth defensive back on the field, has become increasingly important as more college football offenses turn to spread systems with three- and four-wide sets. The run-pass option, too, has changed things for defenses.

“Offenses are not only stretching you vertically, but horizontally, making you defend the whole field,” Batoon said. “It’s a speed/space type game. When you’re looking to combat that, you need to have more speed/space players on the field. So, there are times where we would go into a base defense where the nickel was off, but we try to play in that nickel format as much as possible. It’s demanding on that kid.”

The nickel is inherently a hybrid position that must be able to defend players ranging from tight ends to slotbacks and must show some blitz ability. Batoon praised Ford’s improved understanding of the position and processing speed.

“Tightening up the technique; you gotta be fast and quick on your toes,” Ford said of his recent emphasis.

Ford, who enjoys community and leadership events where he gets to interact with children, has come to view himself as an asset through his position changes. He hadn’t played corner before he came to UH from University High in Los Angeles; there, he was mainly a receiver and played some safety.

At over 200 pounds, Ford can lay the wood when necessary.

He enjoyed a head-turning practice at Aloha Stadium last Saturday, blowing up a Dayton Furuta carry in the backfield and ending the scrimmage with an interception.

Ford sought not to settle on that performance in the ensuing days. UH heads into its second practice at the stadium Saturday (this one is closed to the media and public).

“(It’s about) carrying over and getting better from there, taking it to the next level each day. Stacking the days up,” Ford said.


UH athletics also caught Ford on Friday.


  1. H-Man August 9, 2019 5:17 pm

    Yup, the defense has to step up from last season. and the secondary will have a big part in that improvement. Can’t wait for the Arizona game to see just how much the team has gotten better on both sides of the ball.

  2. BigIslandLava August 10, 2019 6:53 am

    Yep looking forwards to this season’s opener. Has plans to fly in from Big Island and not expecting to see a losing first game. First upset of the season that will set the pace for the rest of the season.

  3. BigIslandLava August 10, 2019 6:57 am

    I am flying in from the Big Island for the season opener and I don’t expect to see us lose. It will be the upset that sets the pace for the rest of the season.

  4. Aiea 7 August 10, 2019 7:17 am

    not sure if using the nickel back as a full-time position shows strength. this position is used on situations where the offense will likely pass and an extra defender is needed. using a full-time nickel back actually exposes some defensive flaws in the overall defense. either the defensive line or linebackers are too slow to cover the short flat passes or the defensive backs are also too slow.

  5. bg August 10, 2019 12:04 pm

    It’s indeed true that the nickel was a situational defense 5, 6,7 years ago. Except for a few like the military teams, Georgia Tech, etc. the college game has evolved to 3 and 4 wide on every down. How do you now identify a likely throwing down any more when teams throw on any down? Can’t wait for 3rd and long. Even the pros are going to the nickel as a base defense as elements of the college game influence the offense.

    Having said all that, I can think of a situation where a DC might use a 4-3 against 4 wr. If the running back is a significant threat AND the def line can generate quick and consistent pressure on the qb. Otherwise, most would be ecstatic to have the linebacker on a wr matchup with time to throw. Of course the DC might be a big-time Vegas gambler and cover the 4 wr with the 4 db without any top cover…that would be fun to watch!

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