This story was updated Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, at 10:55 p.m. with more information.
Nick Tiano has seen a lot of things in his three seasons at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but the senior quarterback never had experienced anything like Ailym Ford.
It was announced Tuesday that Ford is one of 24 players nominated to receive the Jerry Rice Award, given annually since 2011 to the top freshman at the FCS level. Tiano wasn't surprised, especially considering the first meeting between the two.
"Me and Tyrell Price hosted him on his official visit this past December," Tiano recalled at Tuesday's media luncheon, "and we asked him, 'What do you want to do? Do you want to go bowling, maybe watch a movie?' He asked us if we had access to a workout facility and I said, 'I guess, man, if that's what you want to do.'
"That's how that guy is. He just wants to work. He's the first one at practice every day, working on ladder drills and agility after he just got hit 30-35 times in a game on Saturday. He brings it every day and I've never seen anything like it. Those are the guys you want to play with."
Ford enters Saturday's game at Samford with 1,072 yards and nine touchdowns. His yardage total is tops among NCAA Division I freshmen, and his 119.1 yards per game is second in the Southern Conference and No. 6 in the FCS.
He needs just 19 yards to break Mike Smith's single-season freshman rushing record set in 1977, and he already holds the school mark for touchdowns (9) for a freshman. Ford is ninth all-time on the UTC single-season rushing list but needs only 170 yards in the final three games to break Derrick Craine's school record of 1,251 set in 2015.
He is the only Southern Conference player nominated for the Rice Award, named for the NFL Hall of Fame receiver who starred at small-school Mississippi Valley State.
Also not surprised at Ford's latest honor — he was the national STATS FCS freshman of the week after rushing for 200 yards and two touchdowns against East Tennessee State and five other times has been on the honorable mention list — is his head coach.
Rusty Wright, in fact, believes the team's dramatic improvement in the run game is in large part due to Ford's unrelenting work ethic.
"I told the offense, if you're not going as hard as that young man is going, you're cheating him," Wright said. "He's giving everything he's got, so that better be the way you practice and you play."
The offensive line, in turn, has responded, helping improve the team's average per carry over a full yard. Ford's long run right before halftime against Furman, which led to a field goal, is indicative of the line's improvement.
"Right there before the half, what could have been the last play of the half — and those guys didn't have to do that — there was a hat on a hat and we broke a run to give us the opportunity to get points," Wright said. "Two or three games ago, Ailym had to run over a safety to break a long run. Saturday, we had a hat on a hat and he didn't have to.
"The work those guys have put in is great. It starts with the young man carrying it, let's be honest. He's special, but we have gotten better up front. Those guys enjoy playing with each other. We blocked better on the perimeter Saturday than we have all year."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.