The Utes think very highly of offensive lineman Nick Ford, and that’s why they didn’t play him.

Huh? Yeah, that train of thought can be tough to follow. That logic frustrated and infuriated Ford at times last season.

Ford, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound native of San Pedro, Calif., always has seemed ahead of the curve. His parents enrolled him in school early enough as a child that he turned 18 in October of his freshman year of college. He played slot receiver when he first went out for football as a high school freshman but soon outgrew that position. He’d largely outgrown the competition and simply dominated opponents by his senior year.

Then Ford came to Utah, and all of a sudden he got forced to wait.

Ford, who was recruited as a defensive lineman and switched to offensive line during preseason camp, earned a spot on the travel roster as a freshman. However, he watched as assistant head coach/offensive line coach Jim Harding repeatedly passed over him for playing time in blowouts and even when injuries depleted the unit.

“We got to the fourth quarter and we’re blowing (San Jose State) out and he puts the whole second line in except the right tackle,” Ford said. “I’m like, ‘What?’ I’m traveling. I’m doing everything right. Why is this happening? Coach Harding comes up to me after the game and says, ‘I know you might be upset, but keep your head up. You’ve got a long career ahead of you.‘”

The Utes coaching staff focused on the big picture. They preserved four more years of eligibility by not playing him.

“I really think that he’s going to be a really high-level player,” Harding said following a spring practice last month. “So as the year went on we just had to weigh how much did we want to burn an entire year versus helping us in a particular maybe two- or three-week stretch when we had some injuries with the guard spot.”

The Utes will look to plug in one spot with the graduation of starting left guard Salesi Uhatafe, and they’ve got options. Right tackle Darrin Paulo could move to guard, something the Utes looked at last preseason, or center Lo Falemaka, who received a waiver this week to play an extra season, could bump over to guard.

With Paulo injured and out of action this spring, Ford has gotten first-team reps at right tackle, but he’s practiced at as many as four positions in a single practice session this spring. Harding compared Ford’s physical profile to that of former Ute and current Cincinnati Bengal J.J. Dielman. Both probably are slightly shy of ideal length for a tackle, but Harding called Ford “pretty special” athletically.

“I don’t exactly know where he’ll fit in, but I think he’s making a strong case to definitely push for the starting five,” Harding said.

Ford went out for football as a freshman in high school measuring roughly 5-8 and 165 pounds. He’d grown to approximately 6-2, 240 pounds by his junior year at San Pedro High School. Then he leapt to 6-5, 280 pounds going into his senior season. Ford’s father, Michael, played wide receiver at the University of California, and he emphasized quickness and agility with his son.

“Growing into my body has been confusing,” Ford said. “I had to do a lot of footwork drills, a lot of jump rope, stuff to keep up with how my body was changing. That’s how I tried to keep most of my athleticism. My dad made me do footwork drills on a ladder. Everything I did forward, I had to do backward. I had to do it without looking down at the floor.”

He earned Marine League Defensive Player of the Year as well as CIF-LA City Section Division I Offensive Lineman of the Year his senior season.

San Pedro coach Corey Miller, who also served as Ford’s position coach for two seasons, called Ford the most highly recruited player out of the school in his 25 years associated with the program, citing eight Pac-12 scholarship offers for Ford.

Miller knew the big adjustments would come in terms of adjusting to college life and becoming more mature mentally. Well Miller ran into his former protege a few weeks ago while Ford was back home, and Miller said Ford was like “a completely different person.”

“In high school, he was a man among boys,” Miller said. “He didn’t match up in practice, so his work ethic wasn’t always the best. He sometimes didn’t push himself to be the best that he could. Now that he’s at Pac-12 school, he’s got to push himself, and it’s making all the difference.

“The light bulb went on for him. He’s always been a smart kid academically, which we’re very proud of. It just finally went on in his head that ‘Hey, I’ve got to work hard because I’m going up against guys who are equally as good if not better than me.’”

Ford said his weight dropped to as few as 290 pounds during winter conditioning before he built back up to 310. He’s become a sponge and taken in all advice coaches and older players have relayed about competing against bigger, stronger opponents.

Ironically, after being admittedly “pissed” about not getting on the field last season, he also seems less focused on starting now that he’s put himself potentially in line for a starting job.

“I have an opportunity at a spot with Darrin being hurt right now and coming back soon,” Ford said. “That’s my brother, and I hope he plays over me. He’s older than me. He’s done his time. But at the same time, I don’t want him to play over me.”

NICK FORD

Height • 6 foot 5

Weight • 310 pounds

Year • Freshman

Position • Offensive line

Hometown • San Pedro, Calif.

Background • Made the travel roster but did not play in a game as a freshman in 2017. … Rated a three-star prospect by 247Sports coming out of San Pedro High School. He originally committed to Nevada in the spring of 2016 before he de-committed later that summer. … Signed with the Utes as a defensive lineman. … Earned Marine League Defensive Player of the Year and CIF-Los Angeles City Section Division I Offensive Lineman of the Year as a senior in 2016. … He also lettered three years in track and field at San Pedro High.