College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

CHAMPAIGN — Earlier in his time at Illinois, tight end Luke Ford was a frequent subject of media requests.

It made sense. He was a highly-regarded prep prospect from Carterville, who originally went to SEC power Georgia.

After spending the 2018 season with the Bulldogs, Ford joined the Illini, then coached by Lovie Smith. Ford had a good story to tell and was always friendly in interview sessions. But the last year or so, Ford has been mostly outside the spotlight.

Where has he been?

“Just been grinding, working,” Ford said.

It was nice for reporters to able to catch up with him again after Sunday’s afternoon practice, the first time since the end of last season. The team has a short work week ahead of Thursday’s night 7:30 p.m. game at Memorial Stadium against FCS No. 9 Chattanooga (3-0). Illinois hasn’t played since beating Virginia on Sept. 10. The team had Saturday off.

This is Ford’s third season on the field at Illinois. He joined the program in 2019, but had to sit out after his transfer from Georgia. Last season, he caught 15 passes (including two touchdowns) in 12 starts.

Ford has nine more guaranteed games at Illinois. What doe he want to accomplish?

“My focus is really just to be the best I can be for the team in whatever aspect that is and help us get as many wins as we can,” Ford said.

The 22-year-old Ford, who turns 23 on Friday, is working with his fourth different offensive coordinator in college. He had Jim Chaney at Georgia, then Rod Smith, Tony Petersen and now Barry Lunney Jr. at Illinois.

“Even though he is an older guy through the litany of things over his career, he hasn’t played a lot of football,” Lunney said. “He hasn’t played that amount of football that would equate to his age. I see a guy that is committed to playing the best ball he can possibly play for the Illini here.”

Ford is a fan of Lunney and Bret Bielema, his third college head coach. He had committed to Arkansas when Bielema was the Razorbacks coach and Lunney was the Arkansas tight end coach before ultimately signing with Georgia.

“Of course, I love Coach B and I love Coach Lunney,” Ford said.

The Illini are 2-1 with a chance to pick up its third win Thursday against the Mocs.

“I trust the coaching staff. I trust Coach B. I love everything he’s done for the program,” Ford said. “I definitely think we are on the rise. At the end of the day, we’re just going to keep our heads down and just keep working hard. We in this building know where we want to go.”

Position of strength

Illinois has used three primary tight ends this season, with Ford joining Tip Reiman and Michael Marchese.

Reiman and Ford each have five catches so far and Marchese has three. Both Reiman and Marchese have scored touchdowns, while Ford is looking for his first trip to the end zone this season.

“It’s all about the team and what we can do for the team,” Ford said.

The players all get along.

“Marchese is just an awesome guy,” Ford said. “He’s funny. He’s the oldest guy there. He’s the wise guy, and we love him. And he’s a helluva player. I’m learning a lot from him. He’s an amazing guy.

“I love those guys. We are tight-knit group.”

They have different personalities that mesh well. Marchese played linebacker before switching to offense. Ford isn’t surprised the move has gone so well.

“He’s an athlete. He can play any position,” Ford said. “He’s just an everyday guy. Coach tells him to play something, he goes out and does it.”

He isn’t the only one. Not only does Ford follow orders, he also asks for extra duty. This year, he went to the coaches and requested the chance to play on special teams.

“I want to do whatever I can to help out the team in whatever aspect that is,” Ford said.

Why special teams?

“It’s another component of the game that gets overlooked,” Ford said. “But plays a major role in changing field position.”

What’s next?

Though this is fifth season in college, Ford has missed time not related to injury. He saw limited duty on offense at Georgia and also didn’t play a full 2020 season because of the pandemic.

Before this season, Bielema and Illinois convinced the NCAA to give Marshese and offensive lineman Alex Palczewski another season. They might be tempted to try their luck again with Ford, especially knowing Marchese won’t be back after this season.

Sure, Illinois can always go find a tight end in the transfer portal, but would likely prefer a player like Ford, who they know.

Lunney appreciates the ability of the tight ends.

“What I saw from spring practice and fall camp is showing up on the field,” Lunney said. “You’ve got three guys that are playing right now that have deemed themselves reliable and tough and competitive and can catch the ball and be factors in the passing game.”

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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