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.
Here’s #HawaiiFB nickelback Eugene Ford on preparing for another Aloha Stadium practice (where he excelled last week) and on the potential of the Rainbow Warriors’ secondary. pic.twitter.com/9chXfE5vi9
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) August 9, 2019
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.
— Hawaii Football (@HawaiiFootball) August 9, 2019