"I use it as fuel, and at the same time, I'm using it as a benefit. I have more time to prepare and have a really great pro day."
That's the voice of Texas defensive tackle Kaylon "Poona" Ford, the best player in the 2018 draft class not invited to the scouting combine, starting Feb. 27 in Indianapolis. Despite his status as Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, and despite dominant performances in both the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, Ford will be watching from his Texas home as several teammates speak with media and NFL teams and run through drills.
When you watch Ford's tape, it's clear he belongs there. Not that a combine snub is a clear indicator of a lack of NFL potential—just ask Doug Baldwin, Julian Edelman, Chris Harris Jr. and James Harrison, among many others—but in today's scouting realm where everything is checked and cross-checked, this omission seems especially strange.
In 2017 as a senior, Ford racked up 22 solo tackles, eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one pass breakup, several quarterback hurries that are evident on his tape and a blocked field goal. He did all of this playing predominantly as a nose tackle on a three-man line, soaking up double-team after double-team at 5'11" and around 300 pounds. This after posting 42 solo tackles in 2016 and amassing 2.5 sacks in 2015 when he wasn't even a starter yet.
Why wouldn't a player with Ford's pedigree merit a combine invite? Height might be the main reason.
As a 4-star recruit out of Hilton Head High School in South Carolina, Ford garnered attention from Louisville, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Oklahoma State, among other schools, before choosing the Longhorns. Back then, his height was listed as a potential negative, even after he put up 135 tackles, including 28 tackles for loss and seven sacks, 17 pressures and two forced fumbles as a senior.
Three of Ford's defensive teammates at Texas—safety DeShon Elliott, cornerback Holton Hill and linebacker Malik Jefferson—will be in attendance. Even Texas punter Michael Dickson got an invite, but Ford didn't. When you watch his tape, it's hard to explain the thought process behind the snub.
"Yeah, I was very surprised—you do what I did in games, and you think you have a shot of at least getting an invite," Ford recently told me. "You can call up there yourself [to National Football Scouting, the organization that decides combine invitations] and give them your first name, last name and school, and they'll tell you if you're invited or under consideration or didn't get invited at all."
That said, Ford will be watching the combine this week because he's excited to see his former teammates give their best.
"I'm gonna watch my dawgs—I've gotta do that," he said. "Have to watch them put on a show for the coaches. I'm going to watch my brothers. I know they'll do a good job, and I know they'll put up great numbers and be really impressive."
The snub makes even less sense when you consider he got an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game and corresponding week of practice and so impressed those in charge of the Senior Bowl that he got invited there as well.
Outstanding performances in the two most prominent scouting-based postseason games on the road to the NFL—Ford had a sack of Wyoming's Josh Allen, four tackles and a fumble recovery—and still no go for the annual event that allows draft prospects to be seen by hundreds of media members and the staffs from all 32 NFL teams. Those postseason games did give a good indication of how Ford can be far more effective when he's not attached to the center in more restrictive schemes, which NFL teams will notice.
Ford told me that he was grateful for those opportunities, and now all he can do is work to nail every drill at his pro day. He's training with performance coach Bobby Stroupe at APEC in Tyler, Texas, trying to get his 40 time better and working on core strength.
The NFL's weird bias against shorter defensive tackles continues, and it's as nonsensical today as it's ever been.
From John Randle (an undrafted player who is now in the Hall of Fame after amassing 471 tackles and 137.5 sacks in 14 seasons) to Geno Atkins (a fourth-round pick of the Bengals in 2010 who has made six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams) to Mike Daniels (a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2012 who has been one of the most consistently disruptive interior linemen in the NFL over the last few years) to Aaron Donald (a top-three talent who was taken 13th by the Rams in 2014 and has won both the Defensive Rookie of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year awards) to Grady Jarrett (a fifth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2015 who put up three sacks in Super Bowl LI), the NFL has had a consistent bias against shorter defensive tackles.
That bias continues to bite the teams that practice it in the nether regions over and over.
None of those defensive players mentioned stand over 6'1", and all have been dominant for long stretches. When you watch the tape of such players, the advantage to their lack of height is clear in the leverage it affords them. These linemen don't have to bend as far to get under the pads of an offensive lineman, and because of that they can maintain a stronger base on a snap-to-snap basis.
Ford is the poster child for that bias this time around.
Beyond the height issue, it's possible that some evaluators see him as a two-down lineman with little pass-rush upside. While it's true Ford has been an outstanding run defender throughout his collegiate career—according to Pro Football Focus, his 8.3 percent run-stop rate ranked 19th among FBS-eligible defensive tackles with at least 200 run snaps—mislabeling him as a one-trick pony could be a mistake.
"I don't think people realize how versatile I am," Ford said. "In college, I played everywhere from a 5-tech [3-4 defensive end alignment] to a 0-tech [head up over the center], 4i [inside shoulder of the offensive tackle], 2i [inside shoulder of the guard]; even on the edge. I think I'm a pretty good pass-rusher."
The tape and the stats back this up. Watch Ford (No. 95 in your program) against Baylor (here) or Oklahoma State (here) in 2017. When he gets free from those all-too-frequent double-teams, he closes quickly to the pocket and is aggressive when moving quarterbacks off their spot. PFF has him charted with one quarterback hit and 12 quarterback hurries in 2017, postseason games not included.
And in today's NFL, where a lineman's ability to stop plays all across the line is more important than ever, Ford's value could be clearer.
How does he beats those double-teams? With leverage. It's a common construct of his game and a positive side effect of his alleged height deficit.
"You really have to gain control early [in the play] and be locked into your technique," he said. "You have to have your footing right, and you have to stay low."
As for his favorite pass-rush move, Ford likes the "forklift," in which a defensive lineman moves the arm of an offensive lineman up from his body and works the strength battle from there.
"When the offensive lineman engages his hands, you aim at the elbow area and lift him up. It's kinda hard to explain, but that's it."
Ford has also shown an estimable bull-rush when single-teamed, which isn't that often. The more you watch Ford on the field, the more you realize that his relative lack of splash plays was a schematic construct. He was tasked to soak up blocks and provide opportunities for his teammates.
During Shrine Game week, B/R's Matt Miller spoke with Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson, who said, "Thank God for Poona Ford," because of how well Ford did his job as opposed to going off-script and wrecking schemes trying to make his own plays.
"Poona is without a doubt one of my favorite guys in the class, but he's fighting a pretty big battle sub-6'0" and playing nose," Miller told me. "The Texas scheme asked him to slant a ton and he did a great job with this. It's also fun to go back and watch him in some Charlie Strong fronts (Strong was fired by Texas in November, 2016) because he can move around and showed off some athleticism with his penetration skills.
"I do think a strong combine would have helped. He would have been able to show off his strength and agility."
It's why, the more I watch his tape, I think Ford is reminiscent of Grady Jarrett, who put up 28 solo tackles and just 1.5 sacks in his final season with the Clemson Tigers in 2014 but became a true pass-rushing force when he was selected by the Falcons and used as a penetrating nose tackle in Dan Quinn's aggressive and multiple pressure schemes.
Ford gets washed out from side to side by bigger blockers at times, but Jarrett had that same issue in college. Ford could have a similar impact to Jarrett's, especially in a four-man front where he's not asked to soak up blockers and he's able to pin his ears back and go after the ball-carrier.
As a penetrating 1-tech or 3-tech, Ford's value could be serious—either as a rotational player or as a starter picking up a high percentage of snaps.
One thing's for sure: When you're watching the 2018 scouting combine and they tell you that all the best defensive linemen are there, know they're leaving one guy out. Ford may not show up as an instant first-round prospect, but there's little doubt he can help the right team.
"I'm very powerful, and I feel that I can be dominant," Ford concluded. "I can penetrate, and I can beat you from different angles."
He's not wrong. This time, it's the people who decide combine participants who made the error. And when Ford does succeed in the NFL, chalk it up as another win for the unheralded short guys.