Linebacker was a question mark for the Texas Longhorns entering the 2022 season.
Now? Not so much, and that’s thanks in large part to the emergence of junior Jaylan Ford.
“I told [Jeff Choate] when he got here that I wanted to be great,” Ford said on Monday, per Inside Texas’ Joe Cook. “I’m playing for UT. Everyone wants to be great here. He’s been able to hold me to that.”
The 6’3, 234-pounder started showing signs of a potential breakthrough towards the end of the 2021 season, totaling 17 tackles and four tackles for loss during the final three games, but those were just early flashes. There was another level for Ford to reach.
Now three games into the season, Ford is looking more and more like the imposing presence he aspired to be for the Longhorns, leading the team with 25 tackles after swarming against Alabama (10 tackles) and UTSA (15 tackles).
“Jaylan, he’s got a really high football IQ. He’s athletic, he’s physical. He’s got a high football IQ, he’s around the football a lot,” Steve Sarkisian said on Monday. “You don’t come out of the game with 15 tackles not having some awareness, not having the ability to get around the ball. I’m sure, and I know he’s feels the same way, there were probably some more opportunities — that could have been close to a 20-tackle day for him, which is a credit to him. That’s a credit to his awareness, his ability to find the football, to get around the ball.”
“We’re very fortunate to have him,” Sark added. “You never know when a player’s gonna take that next step in your program, but Jaylan has. He’s a guy who I felt like came on late last year, thought he had a good spring. I’ve been mentioning him throughout spring, throughout fall camp; he’s kind of proved me right. He’s played really well for us these first three games, but I agree, there was a moment there in the Alabama game where I thought he took a step, and the moment wasn’t too big for him. He’s been playing good football for us.”
As Sark noted, there have still been a few whiffs on Ford’s part, primarily in the UTSA game. Those are the difference between playing really good, as he is now, and playing great. But he’s showing signs of that potential, as well.
In the early going — and specifically the previous two games — Ford’s displaying patience and understanding the right moments to be opportunistic, and when those opportunities come, he’s putting himself in positions to play decisive and aggressive football. As a result, he’s on pace to become the first Longhorn to record 100 tackles since Malik Jefferson in 2017, and just the second in the last eight seasons — not too shabby for a former three-star recruit who was ranked outside of the top 1,200 nationally.
To that end, and to ultimately reach the level of greatness he’s aiming for, consistency will be key. Even with the missed opportunities against UTSA that allowed the roadrunners to chew up a few more yards and move the chains, Ford has been everywhere for Texas the last two weeks. But before that against Louisiana-Monroe, he wasn’t, and the result was a zero-tackle performance.
Of course, Ford quite clearly moved on from that performance quickly and has been a force ever since, and he’s now a key presence in what appears to be a revitalized Longhorns defense. Ford very much looks the part of a player who has figured things out and taken that next step.
As for the next step — well, he’ll need to be the same player this coming Saturday, and the next, and then the next. To be the player he wants to be and the player Sark, Choate, and the team expect him to be, a great couple weeks will have to turn into a great month, and then on into a great season.
But if the last couple weeks are any indication, Ford’s going to put himself in position to do just that.