Jerome Ford will make his first NFL start Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. The second-year player who didn’t say much and never played much until the second half of the season is now the starting running back for the Cleveland Browns following Nick’s knee injury Chubb that ended the season.
Ford introduced himself to Browns fans with his first career touchdown on the next play after Chubb’s injury in Pittsburgh, a 3-yard catch from Deshaun Watson. Early in the third quarter, Ford began running to the right and cut across the field before sprinting toward daylight and travel 69 meters – with the help of a downfield block from Watson – before getting tripped inside the one-yard line.
Two weeks ago, Ford had eight career carries for 12 yards. He was there since 2022, but only as a rookie and kickoff returner. The Friday before Ford ran for 15 cleanup carries in the Browns’ season opener, he got what he considers his true NFL initiation.
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During the Browns’ final special teams meeting of their standard work week, special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone appeared on Ford High School’s highlight tape. It showed Ford scrambling and sprinting past blockers and defenders. Ford played running back, wide receiver and defensive end at Armwood High School in Seffner, Fla., and out of nowhere, his past life appeared on screen for what became a jury of his peers of the NFL.
“There were haters in there,” Ford said.
Ford said Ventrone’s unexpected shift from practice tape and kick coverage diagrams to footage of him as a high school student “made the play a little wild.” The guys were screaming. Some were impressed, but many of them said things like, “You weren’t playing against anyone.” Of course, these guys couldn’t catch you.
That’s where Browns linebacker and captain Anthony Walker Jr. comes in. Walker, who also grew up in Florida, joined the cries by defending Ford and saying his highlights came against quality competition .
“I checked the facts,” Walker said. “It’s as good as advertised.”
“That tape was really good. One of the best I’ve seen. I’ve never seen anyone play running back and D-end. Catch the ball, come back, get to the quarterback. He was good. Bubba does that to move guys forward, and he made a great first pick with Jerome.
Now, Ford is the Browns’ first choice to replace Chubb. And now there is no doubt about the competition it will face.
The ascent was rapid. Because he was in a backroom with current NFL starters Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, Ford only played in eight games in two years at Alabama before transferring to the University of Cincinnati in 2020. He wasn’t the starter on Cincinnati’s 2020 team, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry and scored eight rushing touchdowns. He ran for 97 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a performance that put him on NFL radars.
The job was his in 2021, and he had five 100-yard games for an undefeated team in the regular season before falling to Ford’s former team, Alabama, in the College Football Playoff. Ford totaled 1,319 yards and 19 touchdowns and earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where the Browns watched him catch passes out of the backfield.
Even though their running back room was stocked at the time, the Browns thought enough of Ford’s speed to consider him a fifth-round steal when they obtained him in April 2022. He spent his rookie season playing on special teams and learning. Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who returned to the Browns following Chubb’s injury, got most of the touches. D’Ernest Johnson finished third and played primarily on special teams. Ford got reinforcements in two games and logged 145 snaps on special teams.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski made it clear that Ford is now the Browns’ starter. Hunt was signed Tuesday to bring experience and play in short-yardage situations. In late August, the Browns traded for Pierre Strong Jr., who became the No. 2 pick behind Ford in Pittsburgh.
“Jerome is very young (but) he’s talented,” Hunt said. “He has a lot of speed and he made a big jump. He is growing and improving. So I’m excited to see us matched up, see how we can wear down defenses and break up runs.
Ford scored 19 of his 30 college touchdowns during his senior season. He didn’t return any kicks or punts in college, but the Browns made him their primary kickoff returner his rookie year, largely because they just wanted to put him on the court – and give him a chance to show off his explosiveness. He opened a November game at Miami with a 48-yard kickoff return and his average of 24.1 yards per return ranked in the top half of the league among those who had at least 15 returns. That’s not bad for a rookie at a new position – and now Ford is a second-year player at a new position, one that requires full-time duty and as many carries as possible like the one he had in Pittsburgh at add to his NFL Highlightstrip.
“A lot of our kids hear me say all the time that you have to stay ready because you never know when an opportunity is going to present itself,” Stefanski said. “And I think Jerome is a great example of that as someone who works really hard on the field, in the weight room, in the meeting rooms. He is someone who is really diligent in his preparation. You just don’t know when your time will come. So I applaud him for preparing and being ready for this moment.
The Browns made Ford their No. 2 running back to start this season. They ruled him out of the Hall of Fame game and a few days later, in practice, Ford suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the remainder of the preseason. So he entered his sophomore season with only the minimal NFL experience he gained in his freshman year, when he played 14 total offensive snaps.
During the offseason, running backs coach Stump Mitchell made it clear he had high expectations for Ford. Mitchell said Ford was capable of putting up the kind of numbers Chubb used to produce if Ford was willing to work on refining the non-operational parts of his game.
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“Jerome has a skill set that allows him to do anything and everything,” Mitchell said. “Pass protection, we worked (on that) a lot this spring, so that was really the only thing we didn’t really have a good handle on because he didn’t do it a lot in college. We’re on his ass about this. He joined.
“I think his growth just comes from having confidence in himself and getting along better with his teammates. This is a huge thing. And understanding that there are things that come with being a rookie that he really didn’t accept last year. Well, he’s still (like) a rookie, so he’s going to do some of the things he didn’t do last year.
What was on that high school highlight tape?
“Kick returns, jet sweeps, a couple sacks, a couple blocked punts,” Ford said. “There is also a trap in this. I make a guy miss and I leave.
Let’s go. Ford showed the kind of speed that made him a four-star recruit by 247Sports, the No. 8 all-around prospect in his class and a top-35 prospect in the state of Florida. He played as a passer and sacked “a bunch” of opposing quarterbacks. Ford remembers one of them was Michael Penix, who is now a Heisman Trophy candidate at the University of Washington and a potential first-round pick in April.
Six years later, Ventrone showed it all during a team meeting.
“Showing tapes of high school highlights is something I’ve been doing since I became coordinator (in 2018 with the Indianapolis Colts), just to break things up and bring some energy into the room on Friday,” Ventrone said. “Jérôme’s is probably the best I’ve ever seen.”
Now that he’s the starting running back, Ford will participate in Friday’s special teams meeting solely because of his role on the team against possible onside kicks. He will critique high school highlight tapes of his teammates as they did with his.
“It was unexpected that Bubba would do that,” Ford said. “He was asking me how to get it, but I thought he wanted to show a blocked punt. I really didn’t know. I’m not a guy who likes to be embarrassed, but it was pretty nostalgic, pretty cool.
Today, Ford’s daily routine has changed. His role has changed. And Chubb’s injury gave Ford the chance to be known — and highly scrutinized — well outside the Browns’ special teams meeting room.
“Seeing Nick go down, it was horrible,” Ford said. “He means more than football to us. Well, to me he’s like a big brother. And we all look up to him and wish we could give what he gives to the team and have his work ethic.
“(I) just walked in his shadow, trying to do everything he did so that when the time came, whenever he left the field, there wouldn’t be a fall when I continued. Seeing him injured was a shock. So now I just take what I learned from Nick and try to apply it every day.
(Top photo: Cooper Neill/Getty Images)