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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / UTC's Ailym Ford breaks free of Western Carolina's Jermichael White (22) to score a Moc touchdown. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hosted the Western Carolina in a Southern Conference football game on September 28, 2019. Today was homecoming for UTC.

It may not stick, and it is certainly not the most endearing nickname ever given, but Rusty Wright may have found just the right monicker for freshman sensation Ailym Ford when asked Tuesday to describe the running back's toughness.

"I've used this analogy with the staff," the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach said. "If you've grown up on a farm, you notice the difference when you have a good mule and a bad mule. The bad mule you can't ever run him in the ground. He won't let you.

"A good mule will work himself to death. Ailym will just work. You ask him how he's doing, no matter how he feels and tired he is, he will tell you he's feeling great. That's just the type of young man he is."

The "Mule" happens to lead all FCS freshmen in rushing yards per game (92.8). His 557 yards are fourth in rushing in the Southern Conference and No. 23 overall in the FCS. He has three 100-yard games, three behind Mike Smith's 1977 freshman UTC record.

He's doing it with a relentless, high-contact style that has seen him lose only 21 yards on 122 carries. He's also been a much-needed workhorse. With injuries ending Tyrell Price's season and causing backup Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks to miss the last game and a half, Ford has carried 60 times in the last two games for a combined 311 yards.

some text Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Ailym Ford (32) runs the ball for UTC. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hosted the Western Carolina in a Southern Conference football game on September 28, 2019. Today was homecoming for UTC.

"He's beat up and he's bruised," Wright said. "He's a true freshman who was in English class this time last year, and he's had 60 carries in the last two games here. It's a different world for him, but he's handling it well. I believe if we handed it to him 50 times he would find a way to get it done.

"Think about it. There aren't many juniors or seniors can do that and walk the next week. He's delivered some shots, too. That's why those guys love blocking for him."

Cole Strange is one of those guys. Strange, the junior left guard who was a Freshman All-American, was All-SoCon last year and has started 23 consecutive games, admitted Tuesday that some guys are just more enjoyable to block for.

"He's just fun to play with," Strange said. "We don't have enough guys like that on the team. He's not super big or the fastest; he's just tough and he plays hard. That matters more than anything, just being tough. I love blocking for him, I really do.

"He's just got that mindset that most people don't have."

Ford, who stayed with his commitment to previous UTC head coach Tom Arth without having met or talked to Wright, didn't take long to catch his coach's eye upon arriving at UTC this summer.

"We were doing special-teams drills and he was knocking people out," Wright said, his eyes lighting up. "He was just doing a drill, but that's the way he lives his life. It was just awesome."

Ford recalls the first special-teams drills.

"I was hitting people and I enjoyed every bit of it," he smiled. "They saw something in me. I came here knowing I had to grind for whatever I have now. I had to be a team player. I started on special teams, and they found a way to get me on the field."

Listen to Wright and it's more like Ford didn't give the Mocs a choice but to put him on the field. Injuries may have given him an opportunity, but his work ethic alone made him stand out.

"He's worked himself into being a good football player," Wright said. "He worked at doing it and he continues to work at doing it. He doesn't settle for being average. He could be happy where he's at, but you watch him and you realize why he is what he is."

A good Mule, but not an ordinary one.

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6296; follow on Twitter @youngsports22.

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