Asmussen | While Ford waits on NCAA's decision, Illini fans voice their support

Asmussen | While Ford waits on NCAA's decision, Illini fans voice their support

CHAMPAIGN — Eventually, the NCAA will make a call. The organization will decide if tight end Luke Ford can play this season at Illinois.

All Ford can do is wait. And hope.

He is trying not to dwell on it.

"I'm just pushing it in the back of my mind at this point," Ford said. "Whatever they come back and say, I don't have any control over it."

But Ford supporters are openly rooting for a positive result. On Twitter, of course.

The #FreeLukeFord Twitter campaign is drawing interest from Illinois fans (no surprise) and Georgia fans (big surprise).

Ford, considered one of the state's top prospects as a senior in 2017 out of Carterville, transferred back home after one season in Athens.

It will make for much easier trips for his family and friends. It already has.

He had more than 15 in the stands for last week's spring game.

"It was great to see everybody and everybody could come to the game," Ford said.

The best part for Ford was playing. How did it go?

"I think the quarterbacks threw the ball really well to me," Ford said. "And the linemen gave my quarterbacks time. The wide receivers ran good routes to get me open. I think I did decent."

The spring session wrapped up Wednesday. Ford has made the transition to Rod Smith's offense.

"I'm learning the plays, getting everything down now," Ford said. "Just fine-tuning all the routes."

Ford wants the coaches to be able to count on him.

"Anything I can do to help the team in whatever position they want me to do," Ford said.

Room to grow

Now that spring ball is over, what's next?

"Just keep working, getting better as a team and getting ready for fall camp," Ford said.

He will spend the summer in C-U, taking classes and working out.

Ford isn't sure what to expect.

"There will definitely be packed days."

Ford likes the look of the offense in general and his position group in particular.

"Everybody's playing really hard," Ford said. "We're very physical. Everybody is doing good on their routes."

He's making friends.

"We have a close-knit group," Ford said.

"When he walked in, he was like a brother already," Illinois tight ends coach Cory Patterson said.

Big ideas

The Illinois coaches want to take advantage of the depth at tight end.

"I really plan on this group being the strength of the team," Patterson said. "As a position coach, you always want that. But I really feel like these guys have what it takes to do that this year."

Daniel Barker led the group last year with nine catches. Caleb Reams added five grabs.

It's a long way from the tight end glory days at Illinois. Tim Brewster and Cap Boso caught 52, 59, 44 and 35 passes in a four-year stretch during the 1980s. In 1994, Ken Dilger caught 48 passes on his way to the NFL.

If he does the work, Ford can be one of those guys.

"He's definitely a game-changer," Patterson said. "He's a big-time game-changer.

"We're going to get him ready to go and be ready to line up on Saturday."

Patterson isn't worried about Ford's eligibility status.

"That's above my pay grade," he said. "My job is to get him ready to play. He's just working. He hasn't talked to me about it at all."

Early in spring practice, Patterson wanted to see Ford's skillset for himself.

He has not been disappointed.

"I've seen a lot of growth as far as learning the offense," Patterson said. "But the kid's still is spectacular with his hands. He plays hard. He's a big-time blocker.

"I'm still excited about him,"

Getting comfortable with the playbook is part of the process for Ford. He spent his first season learning Georgia's offense. Now, he needs to understand the one used at Illinois.

Ford is a big fan of Patterson.

"I love him, Ford said. "He makes it fun how he coaches. He'll always get on you, too, if you're not working hard. He knows how to motivate you and push you."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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