Luke Ford, middle, had reason to smile after a standout performance during Illinois football’s spring game on April 19. The Illini tight end arrived in Champaign prior to the 2019 season, but only has three career college receptions in two seasons. The Carterville native, though, is intent on changing that around in the 2021. ‘He’s working his butt off trying to be a good player,’ Illini tight ends coach Ben Miller said.

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CHAMPAIGN — Noah Ford couldn’t make it out to see his brother Luke perform well during the Illinois spring game on April 19. Noah had a good excuse: He is in the U.S. Navy.

“From what I hear, he’s losing weight,” Ford said. “Good for him.”

Noah has been in for six weeks. He is based in Rhode Island.

“I’m proud of him,” Luke Ford said. “I won’t see him for a little bit.

“I wish him the best. He might look like a different person when he gets back. Who knows.”

Ford’s parents, Lisa and Tim, were in the stands at Memorial Stadium, watching Luke catch five passes for 88 yards, including a 16-yard one-handed touchdown grab from Isaiah Williams.

“It was really awesome to have my family there and have other people in the stands, as well,” Ford said.

We all knew Luke Ford could talk. The tight end entertains reporters with his wit and personality during every press conference.

He started his latest Zoom call wearing a cowboy hat, but quickly switched to an Illini baseball cap.

“I think it’s more professional,” Ford said.

He performed like a pro in the spring game. After his efforts in the scrimmage, we understand what all the on-field fuss was about.

Fans and the media weren’t allowed to watch much of the rest of spring ball. But from the limited sample we saw, it seems obvious Tony Petersen’s offense is tight-end friendly.

“It’s awesome to be a part of this new offense,” Ford said. “My first year at Georgia, I caught one ball. My second year playing football, I caught two. If I really continue on that record, I have the potential to get four catches this year.”

There is some of the classic Ford humor. He wants to catch that many passes, or more, each game.

Full circleThough he ended up at Georgia after a standout career in Carterville, Ford originally wanted to play for Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

It didn’t pan out for the guy who calls southern Illinois home.

All these years later, the two have reconnected in Champaign.

“It’s just awesome to get to work for him,” Ford said. “He’s a great coach, good guy.”

Ford left Athens, Ga., after a year to return to Illinois, not knowing he would reunite with Bielema.

Funny how things work out. Like with his former teammate Justin Fields, who went from Georgia to Ohio State.

On Thursday night, Fields was the first-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears. He will be two hours away if Ford wants to zip up to Soldier Field some Sunday in the fall.

Ford planned to watch the draft and was rooting for Fields.

“He is such a good player and a good teammate,” Ford said.

Work in progressFord is the first to admit he is not a finished product. He is learning another new offense with another new staff.

“I feel like I’ve been through a lot,” Ford said. “I know there are certain things in life that you can’t control.”

Bielema and tight ends coach Ben Miller talk about Ford’s improved maturity.

“He’s a hard worker, which is good,” Miller said. “It’s kind of been teaching him the expectations of how we’re going to practice, how we’re going to work. He’s absorbed it and he’s embraced it. He’s working his butt off trying to be a good player.”

The coached asked if he wants to be his best and told what it would take. He got the message.

“I’ve never wanted to be at the facility more,” Ford said. “I’m putting in more overtime than I ever have before and working harder than I ever have before.

“It’s all because this staff is so great and it makes me want to show up to the building.”

Ford said the coaches have clear goals for the players and a path to get there.

“They think I have potential to be pretty good,” Ford said. “I think I did, but I haven’t done anything.

“Either way, they’ve set out a nice little goal and plan for me to work toward. I’ve been able to just lock in on that and get ready for the season.”

Ford learned a lot about himself during coronavirus-dominated 2020. The players were tested daily and had to limit their interactions with people outside the program.

“Mentally, it was exhausting last year,” Ford said. “But all I know is that if I can make it through that year and go through all that stuff, this year we’ll be better for it.”

And he will appreciate the simple things.

“I can’t wait for a little bit of normalcy and getting people in the stadium,” Ford said. “I’m ready to get back into the environment pre-COVID.”

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

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).

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