With star safety Paris Ford departing the Pitt Panthers, let’s opt to call this what it is

The headline on the article on the website Pittsburgh Sports Now read: “Pitt safety Paris Ford to opt out of remainder of season.” It was a nice get, as we often say in the business, for a site that focuses primarily on college sports and recruiting news.

The use of the phrase “opt out” needlessly complicates the article, though. Unless we’re talking about someone who decided this week not to compete for Arizona or Oregon or Southern California as the Pacific-12 Conference opens competition, all the “opting out” has long since been completed. For the Atlantic Coast Conference, in particular, “opting out” season pretty much lapsed the week of Sept. 6-12.

The time for choosing not to compete because of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic surely is not after one has completed 64 percent of the season, even if Pittsburgh Sports Now’s source told the site that “increasing COVID-19 infection rates in the area contributed to Ford’s decision.”

There are many ways to describe the action Ford is taking as Pitt, owning a 3-4 record after a 45-3 embarrassment at home against Notre Dame, prepares to play Saturday at Florida State. Some of them may be more controversial than simply euphemizing Ford’s decision as an “opt-out” and leaving it there. But any of them figures to be closer to the truth.

1. Ford is “leaving the team.” This seems a reasonable approach to the language of the occasion. Its accuracy cannot be disputed.

Ford had three interceptions this season, along with 41 tackles, three for negative yardage. He also had a public dispute with his coaches during that Notre Dame loss, when he was pulled from the game and replaced by reserve Brandon Hill. It seems plausible that episode and the Panthers’ failure to achieve more than three victories against an accommodating schedule made completing the season less appealing.

2. Ford is “retiring” from college football. After starting at safety through all of last season and the first seven weeks of this one, Ford has, as 247 Sports writer Brian Snow put it on Twitter, “put enough on tape, Pitt isn’t going anywhere, and he wants to be healthy for the draft.”

Ford entered the season as an All-American according to some selectors and was shortlisted for most of the awards likely to be presented to a defensive back. He is viewed as a punishing hitter who also can get to the football, a prospect to play either safety position at the NFL level, possibly a player who will be selected in the draft’s first three rounds.

It became relatively common in recent years for players who were draft prospects to choose not to participate in bowl games that were outside of the playoff system. Ford may be a pioneer of sorts in choosing not to continue playing for a failing team.

3. Ford is “quitting.” Had the Panthers not blown games against N.C. State and Boston College and were sitting at 5-2, would he be making the same decision? This is an impossible question to answer, because that is not Pitt’s circumstance, and yet one can surmise the answer almost certainly is no.

In a season that began with a three-year starter at quarterback in Kenny Pickett and a defense whose promise included a deep, dynamic defensive line and safeties Ford and Damar Hamlin, the Panthers dropped consecutive one-point games to N.C. State and Boston College.

Coach Pat Narduzzi owns a career 39-33 record and is 1-3 in bowl games. He is yet to lose fewer than five games in a season, and it seems shaving the schedule by a game this season isn’t going to help with that.

If Pitt were fulfilling its promise, it is likely that Ford would wish to remain a part of that.

At his Monday press conference, Narduzzi told reporters that he wishes Ford well “in football and in life” and that he is a “tremendous football player and tremendous person.”

We have no reason to doubt Narduzzi’s assessment of Ford’s ability or character.

He is not “opting out,” though. Let us be clear on this.

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