Years before campus visits and college commitment questions became routine components of their lives, Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford competed together on an ACC practice field. Whether he knew it or not in that 2015 offseason, Ford — then fresh out of middle school — gained a glimpse into his near future on that field.
Joe Mangano, who coaches Ford at North Stafford (Va.) High School, had a strong hunch his incoming playmaker would quickly follow Slade’s steps down the path toward Power 5 football recruitment.
“I introduced Devyn to Ricky, who at that point already had like 20 offers as a freshman,” Mangano recalled during a discussion with Land of 10. “I said ‘Heads up, Ricky — this might be the next you coming up.'”
Slade, who debuted at C.D. Hylton (Woodbridge, Va.) High School with 1,309 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns the previous autumn, landed scholarship offers from Clemson, Ohio State, and Virginia Tech, among others, before Halloween of his first high school season. Ford was only a few months away from welcoming his initial offers, the byproduct of a freshman campaign that began with a 237-yard, 4-touchdown performance.
“He came in as an eighth-grader and was the best player on our team that summer,” Mangano said.
By the end of 2015, these rising underclassmen shared several college suitors. As their recruitments expanded and yards piled up, Ford and Slade established mutual respect.
Slade issued a verbal commitment to Penn State in February 2017, signing with the Nittany Lions this winter. He’ll soon arrive in Happy Valley, and hopes to eventually be joined by his fellow coveted Virginian.
“I know a lot about Devyn Ford,” Slade said. “I’m definitely working on him to come to Penn State, and I’ve been working on him for a while now. We have a strong relationship and I’d really like to see him in a Penn State uniform right there with me. We have a lot of similarities.”
Both players are considered top running back talents in their respective recruiting class, and pairing them would be a huge accomplishment for the Penn State coaching staff.
Ford will use an official visit in State College during the weekend of April 20-22. The Nittany Lions are battling with Ohio State and Virginia Tech as main contenders, with a June commitment announcement looming large.
“Talking to the Penn State staff, they’re already drawing up plays for how they can use the two of them together down the road,” Mangano said.
Slade, the 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year in Virginia, tallied 2,700 all-purpose yards as a senior. He accounted for 40 touchdowns in four different ways, including three kickoff returns.
“I see a guy who takes possession and becomes a game-breaker wherever he is on the field,” C.D. Hylton coach Tony Lilly said. “Ricky is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. … From an all-purpose standpoint, you can hand him the ball out of the backfield, you can swing him out of the backfield, throw the ball to him out of the backfield, or put him in the slot where he’s a great route runner.”
Naturally, comparisons to former Penn State star Saquon Barkley have surfaced.
“I’m not Saquon, but I think I can bring in tools that he had — in the receiving game, the kick-return game, and definitely the running game,” Slade said.
Ford creates a similar impact for North Stafford. He earned first-team all-state honors as a running back and punt returner in 2017, collecting 2,056 rushing yards with 32 total touchdowns.
So are these two highly productive team catalysts capable of sharing the same backfield?
“Absolutely, I think so,” Ford said.
Part of this dynamic is their respective abilities to impact an offense in a variety of ways.
“Both of them can go to the slot, or one can go to tailback, or both can be in the backfield and you motion one out,” Mangano said. “You can do a lot of creative things with those guys because they both can catch and run. That’s a nightmare for defenses.”
Ford has kept tabs on Slade’s prep career, and the two competed against each other last August during a preseason scrimmage.
“He is really, really good out of the backfield,” Ford said. “If you get Ricky in space he can do a lot of damage. Outside in the slot, catching a short pass and taking it for an 80-yard touchdown. Or he can take a sweep out of the backfield, hit the edge and he’s gone. It’s pure speed.”
Slade, clocked at 4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash, is 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds. Ford takes a bit longer to accelerate but has an advantage in size (5-11, 190 pounds) with one year of high school still ahead of him.
“Ricky is more of an ankle-breaker and shifty, which I like and that’s what I want to be,” he said. “He’s a whole different story when it comes to elusiveness and quickness.”
Ford believes if they were to combine forces in college, competition would directly drive them to maximize potential.
“[We would] play off each other’s strengths,” Ford said. “I feel like he has better hands than me, and that would make me mad because I want to have better hands than him. He has better quick twitch than me, so of course I would want to improve myself. But I believe I have more power than him, so I think I’d push him [regarding] strength.”
Penn State will soon learn the fate of this potential tandem. By the end of June, Slade will reside in State College and Ford will conclude his recruitment.
The Nittany Lions bid farewell to a legendary figure in its backfield after the 2017 season when Barkley declared for the NFL draft. Penn State now likely turns to a former 5-star running back recruit in Miles Sanders as the starter, though he will compete against seniors Mark Allen and Jonathan Thomas, along with freshmen Journey Brown and Slade, for touches this fall.
Ford would add yet another elite weapon if he follows Slade into town. Though neither is guaranteed collegiate stardom, both blue-chip athletes embrace the idea of chasing individual dreams side-by-side.
“They’re great young guys who are humble and would challenge each other,” Mangano said. “Two hard-working kids who love football and are dynamic players in a lot of different ways.”