Making a strong comeback from a back injury that ended his 2011 season prematurely, Ford's performance was one of the highlights for the defense in spring training. He was able to play in just three games before being shut down last season. Ford made six solo tackles with one assist and one quarterback sack.
Because the injury happened so early in the season, Ford was granted a medical hardship redshirt so he will be a junior again this fall. It didn't take him long to grab the attention of his new defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, when the coach studied video of the 2011 defense.
"I saw a couple clips last year, before he was injured, that showed he had some special traits," VanGorder said of Ford's physical ability as well as style of play.
"I never anticipated the consistency of it," VanGorder said. "Every snap he is a guy who has made it a habit to play fast and play hard.
"When you get those kinds of guys, it offers you a lot in terms of production and the rest of the guys seeing this is what it looks like," the coach added.
Known for his work ethic on and off the field, Ford points out that he will do what he can to help the team succeed.
"I want to lead by my actions," he said. "I want to vocally be an inspiration to people and lift them up. In practice you have to have a great time while you are doing this stuff. Those are basically my goals.
"You have got to be excited and have to practice with energy," he added. "You have to practice that way during the week if you want to play that way on Saturday. You just can't show up for the games and play that way if you haven't practiced doing it."
Ford finished the spring running with the first team at the end opposite Corey Lemonier, the player he competed with for playing time last year. There is a solid chance both will be starting together this year even though neither guy is a large player by major college defensive end standards. Ford stands six-foot-two and weighs 237 pounds. Lemonier is 6-4, 240.
VanGorder said he has no problem going with two ends of their size as his first team players. "Both of them have the trait of suddenness and explosion, which gives them a chance," he said. "With defensive linemen their advantage should be in the athletic area and in the area of quicker and more sudden."
The defensive coordinator noted that as long as a smaller end like Ford uses his athletic ability to good advantage, he can play SEC football, something the coach said that he believes this junior can do. "Dee Ford is unique--an explosive, strong guy," VanGorder stated. "I didn't see anything that bothered him playing over a tight end. That is a sudden, quick guy who should win."
Dee Ford is shown during a 2012 spring practice.
Ford has always been fast on a football field. In high school he was a defensive back before his coaches decided to move him closer to the line of scrimmage so he could have more impact in games. The strategy worked well as he earned Class 4A All-State honors as a senior, causing havoc along the way.
Of his 90 tackles his final year in high school, 38 were behind the line of scrimmage with 18 being quarterback sacks.
Former Auburn defensive ends coach Terry Price discovered Ford with the help of a tip from St. Clair County High School head coach Charlie Boring, with whom Ford still stays in touch. Price looked at video of Ford in action and then invited him to attend a camp at Auburn. After seeing him in action, the Tigers liked Ford enough to offer a scholarship, which the prospect accepted.
Ford played as a true freshman for the Tigers in 2009. He was in on 12 tackles with two sacks and an intercepted a pass. He played in 13 of the 14 games the following season for the national champs and made his first college start vs. ULM. He chipped in with four tackles that day and finished the year with 10 tackles and two assists.
Ford looks to be a good fit for what VanGorder is trying to do with the front four this fall. The coach's philosophy is for the ends and tackles to get up field and attack the offense rather than read and react, which was the theme under former coordinator Ted Roof.
Asked what was the major area of improvement for the defense in the 15 days of spring practice, Ford said, "Making a transition from reading to playing vertical, and reacting more than just trying to figure out what the offense is doing. I think we're playing very fast right now."
Ford said the Tigers need to build on the momentum started in spring drills and continue to prepare themselves for the season that opens on Sept. 1st vs. Clemson. Asked about the importance of the individual offseason workouts, he said, "It's important, since we've made strides, to keep that going, not take any steps backwards--take everything we do seriously because the coaches won't be here. This is when our leaders will step in and take us forward into fall."
Intense about conditioning, nutrition and improving as a football player, Ford said that spring training went well for him, but noted he isn't satisfied. "I think I made strides," he said. "There are still a select few things I can work on, but I'm happy with it."
With a goal of getting to 250 pounds, Ford eats "at least" 6,000 calories a day and does a variety of workouts, including yoga, to keep his body strong and flexible. When he is on the move it is normal to see him carrying protein drinks and a bag of fruit to munch on to stay fueled. "In my free time I like to train," he said.
Ford's position coach, Mike Pelton, has praise for the defensive end's work ethic. "Dee has been kind of a football junkie since I've been here," the coach points out. "He's one of those guys who is always in my office watching film. He's always asking questions."
Pelton said he is looking for Ford to have a strong junior season. If everything goes according to plan, all of the time and effort the defensive end has put into preparation should make him a key player for the 2012 Tigers.