2021 was a signature year for Justin Ford. He was one of the nation’s best corners with an outstanding nine interceptions to his name but almost even more impressive was the FCS record eight consecutive games with a pick. He was a major contributor on a Montana defense that helped shock a ranked Washington team in Week 1 and dominate in-state rival Montana State in the all-important Brawl of the Wild. However, until recently, many Griz fans thought they may have seen the last of Ford as he was strongly considering entering the NFL Draft. Instead, he opted to return for one last run and that’s very, very good news for UM.
Transferring in from Louisville two years ago, Ford has been a vital part of the Grizzlies since. However, this year shapes up to be perhaps even bigger than the rest. Last fall was a storybook season for the Montana defense. They bullied their way to ten wins and yet another playoff appearance. That Griz defense created 27 turnovers and Ford has his stamp on 11 of them. Games often changed when #21 got his hands on the ball.
Put the 41 tackles, interception streak, and defensive touchdowns aside for a second, though. Ford staying has ramifications beyond merely bolstering the defense. The Grizzlies are losing several big names on both sides of the ball as they head into 2022. Some of those big names include quarterback Cam Humphrey, receiver Samuel Akem, and linebacker Jace Lewis. Ford being back in the fray will be a big deal. Montana is going to need a veteran leadership presence and, in a secondary full of underclassmen, Ford and incoming transfer CB Jayden Dawson are the only seniors currently listed on the roster.
“I feel like there’s much more to do. So, that’s ultimately why I came back,” Ford said earlier this month at Montana’s spring camp. “I think we have a great opportunity to do something special. I think we had a great opportunity last year, just injuries in the wrong places. I think this year the main thing was to come back and just help achieve a national championship.”
There undoubtedly is a sour taste in Montana’s mouth with how things ended last year for the Grizzlies, who suffered a quarterfinal exit at the hands of a very good James Madison team. Injuries plagued key players for much of the year and UM lost key games because of it, including that quarterfinal bout with the Dukes. Ford was one of the several injured early in the year and he, admittedly, never felt like he was 100 percent healthy throughout the remainder of the 2021 campaign.
When the Griz kickoff their season against Northwestern State on September 3, Ford and company expect it to be the start of a fantastic run that will hopefully put those what-ifs to bed. “I definitely feel like I’ll have a better season, just clean things up and look more professional,” he said. “I definitely think there’s better football to be played.”
He’s coming off of a year in which he was a unanimous first-team All-America selection. He was fourth place in voting for the Buck Buchannan Award. He practically rewrote the record books for the Grizzlies.
2021, though, may have just been a springboard for an even greater 2022 and, if that’s the case, Montana fans ought to be very excited. Whatever achievements await the Griz this fall, expect Ford to be a large part of them.