Paris Ford eligible, practicing with Pitt football team
Even good news brings a challenge for Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi.
After missing the first three weeks of training camp, freshman safety Paris Ford was cleared by the NCAA over the weekend to begin practice. He just recently fulfilled his academic requirements — after transferring from Central Catholic and Seton-La Salle and graduating from Steel Valley — and enrolled in Pitt’s fall semester that begins next Monday.
With more fanfare than you’d expect for a player who missed 17 practices, he was brought before reporters by Narduzzi on Monday morning. The coach blew a shrill whistle to summon Ford from the locker room, let him say a few words and sent him on his way.
“I’m here. It’s that time,” said Ford, who thanked several people, including mom and dad. “I’ve been waiting for this moment.” That was Ford’s 15 seconds of fame.
“Get out of here,” Narduzzi told him, playfully. “You have seven seconds (to get to practice).”
Through it all, both men wore wide smiles, tempered in Narduzzi’s case by the harsh reality of the situation that the coach immediately addressed.
“Expectations-wise, he’s 17 days late,” Narduzzi said. “We’re not saying ‘Let’s go, Paris. You’re the savior.’
“That isn’t going to happen. In my opinion, he’s going to redshirt. If something else happens besides that, it’s a miracle pretty much. It’s too hard to come in as a kid like that.”
No one will know how far along Ford would have been mentally if he was permitted to report on time. Yet, he might be one of the most gifted athletes on the team, and free safety is a position Pitt coaches targeted for improvement.
Ford was one of the top high school safeties in the nation last season, ranked fifth by Rivals.com at that position and 51st overall. He also was the third-ranked recruit in Pennsylvania, behind only Penn State defensive back Lamont Wade of Clairton and Georgia running back D’Andre Swift of St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia.
He was rated a four-star prospect this year by Rivals, tied for the head of Pitt’s class with running back A.J. Davis and tight end Charles Reeves Jr.
Armed with the knowledge Jordan Whitehead became a starter at safety and ACC rookie of the year as a freshman, some fans were hoping Ford also would make an early impact.
At one time, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin could see it happening. He was not available for comment Monday.
“(Safety) was a major concern (in 2016), along with the corner position,” Conklin said on signing day in February. “I told Paris all along he has to come in and expect to play. You watch him fly around. You watch him make some plays against some of the best talent in the country (in the Under Armour All-American Bowl), you think you got a shot (for Ford) to come right away and be a contributor.”
That was then. This is now. The opener against Youngstown State on Sept. 2 is only 12 days away.
Perhaps later, if all goes well and Narduzzi’s miracle happens, Ford could help.
“There’s always enough time,” senior cornerback Avonte Maddox said. “You put your mind to anything, you will be able to do anything. And I will teach him.”
Asked what Ford (6-foot, 175 pounds) brings to the field, Maddox said, “He’s an athlete. He can move left, right, vertical, behind. It doesn’t matter. He’s able to go get the ball.”
Junior safety Dennis Briggs, who looks like the starter at strong safety, said Ford already started to fit in with his teammates.
“He’s a real social guy,” Briggs said. “You can tell he’s here to learn. He has his notebook out in every meeting.
“He looked good in his individual drills. His attitude is great. The mental game will come as he gets more reps.”
The man immediately responsible for getting Ford on a level with his teammates is secondary coach Renaldo Hill, who said it’s too soon to know if he will play free or strong safety.
“Right now, we’re just trying to get him adjusted to what we do defensively,” Hill said. “We are going to get him out here and let him run around and see where his skill set fits.
“Being able to see him in person, he affects others around him. He has an upbeat attitude. He definitely brings that to the group.”
Narduzzi won’t force Ford into the lineup, but he also won’t close the door to his entry, either. His future is tied to his learning curve, and for now, that will have to do.
“It’s nice to get everybody you signed here,” Narduzzi said. “Some guys get here slower.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.