Luke Ford Turning Down NFL Chance to Return For Illini’s 2022 Season

Luke Ford’s belief in Bret Bielema’s Illinois staff and the ability to prove some holes in his game for the NFL resulted in a return to Champaign for the Illini tight end.

By Matt Stevens -- IlliniGuys Staff Writer

January 17, 2022

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Whether he’s looking at it individually or in the framework of the team concept, Luke Ford realized he has more to accomplish in an Illinois football jersey.

The 22-year-old tight end announced Monday afternoon via social media that he’ll be spending one more season with the Illini, which will be his fourth season in orange and blue and fifth season overall in college football.

Ford made his decision official to decline the opportunity to be an early entrant in the upcoming 2022 National Football League draft with a social media post that summed up his feelings on being in Champaign for one more fall.

“The main thing is I believe in this coaching staff (and) I want to leave this place better than I found it,” Ford said in a Zoom media conference Monday afternoon. “And I’m also given the opportunity to improve my draft grade so that’s the basis of me staying.”

Ford, a 6-foot-6 and 260-pound tight end from Carterville, finished this past season with just  15 receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns last season. All of these career-high numbers for Ford, who is already seen by NFL scouts as a superior blocker at his position, are something he’s confident he can improve on in a 2022 season with new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.

“One, (Lunney) was a tight ends coach and he showed [several years ago] me how they were going to use me (at Arkansas),” Ford said. “Two, the production he had with his (Texas San-Antonio) was a factor so I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen that way here at Illinois.”

IlliniGuys.com has already documented that Lunney Jr. has promised and hs experience at the Power Five Conference level as an assistant in an offensive system under Illinois head coach Bret Bielema using the tight end position. Lunney, whose hiring was announced last week, served under Bielema at Arkansas as the tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator for the entire five-year tenure 2013-17. In the 2015 season at Arkansas, which was the first season with Dan Enos as the Razorbacks offensive coordinator running a pro-style system with the quarterback (Brandon Allen) primarily under center, the offense was able to finish third in the Southeastern Conference in passing offense at 268.2 yards per game with current New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry as the team’s second-leading receiver with 51 receptions for 739 yards and three touchdowns. Henry won the John Mackey Award in 2015, given to the nation’s best tight end, and was a consensus All-America selection. Current Dallas Cowboys tight end Daniel Sprinkle was a reserve backside bootleg target and ever-improving talent as a run blocker in Arkansas’ double tight end sets and ended with 27 receptions for 389 yards and six touchdowns.

“When I got a lot of my NFL grades back it was in the middle, late round to priority free agent,” Ford said. “They are telling me I need to have more catches. I had a great blocking grade and I feel like two classes going to this draft when you combine this year with last year’s COVID class, I think it’ll be beneficial for me to stay out of the draft right now.”

Ford is comforted with Lunney as a familiar face dating back to his high school recruiting days as the No. 1 prospect out of the state of Illinois in the 2018 recruiting class.

“Barry recruited the heck out of Luke trying to get him to Arkansas by coming to see him at Carterville High School three times,” Luke Ford’s father, Tim, said to IlliniGuys.com. “It was Barry with (then-offensive coordinator) Dan Enos who made the first in person visit to Luke while Luke was at a basketball practice."

Ford has been able to have communication with Lunney since the announcement of the hiring of Bielema’s second offensive boss at Illinois and is convinced his position group will be emphasized in the pass game this coming season.

“It’s kind of crazy how these things come full circle,” Ford said. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

With Monday being the final day to officially add or remove your name as a 2022 non-senior draft prospect, Illinois is expected to currently have six scholarship tight ends on the roster when preseason camp opens in August (Ford, Michael Marchese, Griffin Moore, Tip Reiman, Henry Boyer and Owen Anderson). Illinois will lose 2021 starter Daniel Barker to the upcoming draft after he earned 18 receptions for 202 yards and four touchdowns last season. Everybody currently on that 2022 Illini tight end depth chart is expected to be available for spring practice except Boyer, a 2022 signee from Brother Rice, including Anderson as an early enrollee from New Jersey.

When asked if he had a desire to explore the transfer portal for his fifth and likely final season of college football, Ford, who transferred from Georgia to Illinois prior to the 2019 season, had a simple, two-word response.

“No chance,” Ford said. “This is my last stop.”

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