When Poona Ford scooped up a fumble and rumbled for a 15-yard touchdown Sunday during the Seahawks' mock game, the crowd, predictably, went wild.
After all, who doesn't love it when a 300-plus-pound lineman gets the ball in his hands, let alone finds the end zone? Few things in football are more fun than the random big-man touchdown.
But when Ford does something good for the Seahawks, it isn't just that the fans in attendance get excited, Twitter tends to blow up too, with the hashtag #PoonaHive filling the timeline of Seahawks fans. It's even enough to make otherwise reputable national journalists clamor for video of a play that took place in a mid-August practice, in all caps no less.
Ford isn't entirely sure how he became such a beloved figure among Seahawks fans. Most likely it has to do with him being an underdog story, an undrafted free agent who didn't just make the team as a rookie, but who also developed into a starter who, heading into his fourth season, is a key part of Seattle's defense. And yes, he admits with a grin, being 5-foot-11, 310 pounds—hardly a typical build for an NFL defensive lineman—probably helps endear him to fans.
"It's always good to know you've got somebody in your corner that you've never even met before," Ford said of his popularity among fans, particularly on Twitter. "It makes you feel good, it makes you want to be the best you."
Trying to explain that popularity, Ford added, "People probably like my body type. People don't expect me to be able to do the things I do out there."
And it's the things Ford can do on the field, more than his unusual build or even his beloved belly-rub celebration he has used after big plays on occasion, that ultimately make him such an important part of the 2021 Seahawks. Ford went undrafted despite being the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year while playing at Texas, one of the biggest programs in college football. The Seahawks recognized in Ford talents that transcended his height limitations and made him a priority as an undrafted free agent, and Ford won a roster spot as a rookie, primarily as a rotational interior lineman best known as a run stuffer.
Over the past two seasons, however, Ford has become a starter and developed into a more complete lineman, one who can pressure opposing quarterbacks while still being stout against the run. Ford registered two sacks last season after having only half a sack in his first two, and while that number hardly jumps off the stat sheet, it also doesn't show how much better he was as generating pressure last season, regardless of whether he got to the quarterback—Ford did have a career-best nine quarterback hits in 2020.
One of Ford's goals in 2021 is to get to the quarterback more often, and that will be important for Seattle's defense with Jarran Reed, the team's top interior pass-rusher in recent years, now in Kansas City.
"I want to get more sacks, but I'm also going to do my job in the run game," Ford said. "Just set the tone for running game. But my goal for me personally is to get more sacks, try to get more sacks each year… I'm trying to do my best to lead the group, and take everything (Reed) taught me and keep spreading the knowledge. We all have high standards in that room, and we know everyone is going to do their job."
One key to Ford's growth as a pass-rusher over the past couple years is the work he has done in the offseason with Seahawks legend Cliff Avril, pass-rush sessions that the two continued this offseason.
"It's all the work with Cliff, him helping me understand how to get a better feel for how to rush," Ford said. "… Cliff's been a really big part of that as far as my progression as a pass rusher."
Ford's development into a more complete defensive tackle is a big reason why the Seahawks signed him to a multi-year extension this offseason rather than just tender him as a restricted free agent.
"It felt good," he said of getting a second contract with the Seahawks. "I know there's a lot of people out here like, undrafted and whatnot, they see that and it gives them hope that they can do it too. You can exceed your goals more than you think you can, you've just got to keep working."
That Ford has made a name for himself in the NFL isn't surprising to people who have known him for very long, including Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs, who was a senior at Texas when Ford arrived as a freshman.
"He stood out as a young guy, the way he worked, his work ethic," Diggs said. "He was one of my favorite freshmen. You could ask him, I always messed with him. When I was a senior, he was a freshman, I always messed with him, because he had like the super long arms, he had that underdog mentality. I mean, he's 5-10, 5-11 playing D-tackle, and everybody doubted him. He didn't have big offers—he was committed to Louisville, Coach (Charlie) Strong left Louisville, he committed to Texas. So I always appreciated that about him that he came and he worked and he did what he was supposed to do."
And since arriving in Seattle, Ford has shown that his work ethic, smarts, athletic ability and, as defensive end Carlos Dunlap likes to describe it, "built-in leverage" that comes with being shorter than opposing offensive linemen, are more than enough to compensate for any concerns teams had about his height heading into the draft.
"There's a couple things about Poona that are unique—one, he's a terrific athlete just in general, he's just got timing and feel, he's got hand-eye coordination," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's got a great shot in hoops. He's just he's just got a lot of natural athleticism about him in this body that just doesn't look like he should. But he also has really long arms, and the length that he has allows him to leverage and get underneath guys. Natural quickness is a special part of the natural athletes sometimes; he's got that. So he didn't look the part, maybe, to other teams and he was available to us in free agency. The playmaking—he was Player of the Year in his conference I think, and you can see why. He's just a really good ballplayer, and he's really smart as well. He can play all the spots and he can help guys out and communicate really well. So he's a terrific guy, we were really happy to get him hooked up this offseason."
The Seattle Seahawks faced off against each other in a mock game at Lumen Field on Sunday, August 8. Gallery updated throughout the practice.