'Competition breeds excellence': Ford, McClelland lead crowded race to be UC's No. 1 RB
University of Cincinnati running backs Jerome Ford and Charles McClelland compete over everything.
They compete over who's the better wide receiver. Ford thinks he is.
They compete over who's the better quarterback. McClelland thinks he is.
Ford isn't having that.
"I've played one quarterback rep, had a touchdown, so I have the best QBR rating. That means I'm the best quarterback," he said.
"Wooow, we're going to talk about that," McClelland pushed back.
The two compete over reps, playing time, and with last season's leading rusher, Gerrid Doaks, no longer in the backfield, the two are competing to be the team's No. 1 running back. The two are leading a group that also includes return specialist Ryan Montgomery, Ethan Wright and Michael Kopaygorodsky.
Ford and McClelland push each other just short of the edge every day. Their mission is to bring the best out of each other. Ford said his mission is to make sure McClelland is ready for fall camp in August and the season opener in September.
"I'm just trying to push this man to get the knees right," Ford said.
McClelland suffered his second torn ACL in 14 months in October. The injury to McClelland's right knee happened on his third carry in the Bearcats' 42-13 win at SMU. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior missed all of 2019 after suffering the same injury to his left knee in a non-contact drill during fall camp.
"They're getting back healthy," McClelland told The Enquirer. "The left one is perfectly fine. I'm working on the right one. I'm getting back, slowly. I'm just five months out (of surgery) and I'm cutting and everything. I should be good by the season."
The defending American Athletic Conference champion Bearcats open their 2021 campaign Sept. 4 at home against in-state rival Miami University. The rivalry has a new twist this season, specifically in the running backs room, as new Cincinnati running backs coach Darren Paige played for the RedHawks before transferring and having a standout career as a wide receiver at the University of Findlay.
"There won't be any love lost at all," said Paige on facing his former school. "That will be an emotional one, but shoot, I'm ready. I'm glad to be a Bearcat. I'm proud of the C-Paw. My family's proud of it. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this thing."
Paige joined head coach Luke Fickell's staff in February, replacing Dan Enos, who left Cincinnati in January to become the offensive coordinator at the University of Maryland.
Coaching Ford, McClelland, Montgomery and the rest of the running backs presents a new challenge for the 36-year-old Paige, who came to UC after a two-year stint as the wide receivers coach at Eastern Michigan.
"Coach Fickell challenged me professionally by giving me an opportunity to coach a new position," Paige said. "But he's also been mentoring me throughout that process, and it's been very good. I feel like I've been getting better every day. I'm learning a lot, and the guys see that I'm learning and I'm working at it. ... The fact that they see me working at it, they're like, hey, I can't be below the standard with coach."
McClelland is doing everything he can to meet that standard and be ready physically for the season, but he and Paige both said the greater priority is making sure McClelland is where he needs to be mentally.
"You just gotta try to stay positive," McClelland said. "Most people in this situation, they probably would've put the cleats down and hung it up. Two injuries, two ACL injuries, it's hard to come back from that. But you just gotta stay strong."
A major source of strength for McClelland has been Ford. While McClelland has leaned on his family, teammates, Paige and UC's training staff to help him carry the physical and emotional load during his now second arduous rehabilitation, Ford has helped McClelland lessen the load by keeping things light.
"We play a lot of video games," Ford said.
"Warzone," said McClelland, speaking of the "Call of Duty: Warzone" video game that released in March 2020.
Instead of competing against each other, the two play the game together, taking on any and all challengers online.
"I'm not going to lie, I'm low-key trash, but we're not going to talk about that," McClelland said.
"I help," Ford said. "I don't hinder, I help. I can do some things."
The biggest question last season surrounding the running game for Cincinnati was would the Bearcats be able to replace Michael Warren II.
The two-time second-team All-AAC running back compiled back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019 before becoming the first player to leave UC early for the NFL draft.
Doaks, who led Cincinnati with 520 rushing yards in 2017, battled back from an injury-plagued 2018 and stepped out from under the huge shadow Warren created in 2019 to lead the Bearcats in rushing again last season.
Doaks ran for 673 yards and seven touchdowns and was a powerful and dependable complement to the legs of quarterback Desmond Ridder, who rushed for 592 yards and 12 scores.
This season, Doaks is gone, choosing to pursue a career in the NFL. So Ford and McClelland are up next.
Ford had 483 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season, his first at Cincinnati. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound redshirt sophomore spent the previous two seasons at Southeastern Conference powerhouse and defending national champion Alabama.
"As soon as I got here, the first thing I did was I challenged Jerome," Paige said. "I said, Who are you going to be? We need to know who are you going to be and can you be that guy consistently every single day? That's been his approach.
"He's a super talented kid. Obviously, everybody knows the background with Alabama, but you're at UC now. Are you going to separate yourself? Are you going to be different? Are you going to be a great leader and a great mentor to the other guys in the room? Because you've had some experiences that they haven't had."
McClelland has 600 career rushing yards with five total touchdowns (four rushing and one receiving). The Homerville, Georgia, native, who had two 100-yard games in 2018, is still working to put it all together at UC, especially after his second ACL injury forced him to have to watch helplessly as Georgia defeated the Bearcats in the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day.
"Me being from Georgia, it hurt," he said. "I wanted to beat them so bad. Going back to family, I wanted to show them that Cincinnati is really like that. But we just gotta be better next time we get the opportunity, honestly, because we were up the whole game and fell short at the end.
"But I feel like everybody is hungrier. Having that loss at the end of the year left a pit in your stomach. I feel like everybody is more motivated. Everybody is hungrier and ready to get back at it."
Paige said he doesn't know yet who the No. 1 back will be in September. He has plenty of time to figure it out, five months to be exact. But the first-year Cincinnati assistant said he's looking forward to seeing which player will separate himself from the pack.
"Doaks commanded that room, and prior to Doaks, Mike Warren did the same thing. They commanded that room and guys understood that," he said. "So, now, with those type of personalities out of the room, who is going to stand out? ... We want to be the best backs in America, period, as a group. So whoever's having success, we're all having success. But we're going to compete amongst each other to push each other to be the best. Competition breeds excellence, and we want to be excellent."