Before this season began, John Ross figured he would venture down memory lane, to the last time he played receiver in a college football game.
The reflection was not particularly pleasant.
Ross, as most know, has always been fast. Really fast. He has twice run the 40-yard dash in under 4.3 seconds, hand-timed, at Washington’s Husky Combine events, even last March after missing the 2015 season due to a torn anterior-cruciate ligament. He has always been a big-play threat. But his fundamentals as a receiver needed work.
When he sat down to watch film of the old days — his freshman year in 2013 when he played sparingly, his sophomore year in 2014 when he split time between receiver and cornerback — Ross didn’t like what he saw.
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“My releases were not good. I didn’t really run hard off the ball. It was a lot of things,” Ross said. “I watched that film before this season, and I kind of get down on myself about that. But that’s basically me motivating myself, also, showing myself that is what I don’t want to be now, because it won’t get me playing, it won’t help this team, it won’t help Jake (Browning) or anyone. I just tried to correct everything from there and continue to leave that behind.”
Which is exactly what he’s done this season to opposing defensive backs. Through six games, Ross leads the Huskies with 30 catches for 371 yards and nine touchdowns, all career highs. And he’s not just sprinting past everyone and catching deep passes; in fact, six of his touchdown catches covered 15 yards or fewer, and four of those came on plays snapped inside the 10-yard line.
“I think the game’s slowing down a little bit, for sure, from a route-running standpoint,” first-year receivers coach Bush Hamdan said. “Just understanding when to use his speed, when he’s got to kind of trust his technique and slow down a little bit. I think he’s become a stronger player, better against press coverage. Just overall a more complete player.”
Ross has turned into one of UW’s most valuable red-zone weapons, too. He’s much better at reading leverage and breaking inside for touchdowns on slant routes, or outside for touchdowns on fade routes to the corner. At Oregon two weeks ago, Ross juked a defensive back so deftly on a red-zone fade that there was nobody else in the frame when he caught Browning’s throw for a touchdown.
That play works, Ross said, because of “patience. And Jake.”
“He’s putting the ball exactly where it needs to be, and I’m just being patient, working the release and getting to where the ball is.”
Ross credits Hamdan for teaching him the finer points of being a receiver. He didn’t have a true receivers coach as a prep star at Jordan High School in Long Beach, California, then had two different receivers coaches in his first two years at UW — and spent some of that time playing cornerback.
When he got to UW, he thought he’d be able to run past everyone like he did in high school. He quickly learned that while his speed was a valuable gift, it wasn’t going to be enough on its own.
The ACL injury was a setback, but it allowed Ross more time to hone his releases and routes, more time to focus on becoming a receiver instead of just a fast guy.
“There’s no comparison,” Ross said of the difference between his first two seasons and this one. “My progression is so much different. I couldn’t really break down and transition like I wanted to, like I do now.”