The legend of John Ross was born early.
He was a four-star prospect out of Long Beach (California) Jordan High School, a 5-foot-11, 173-pound blur whose next-level speed helped earn him scholarship offers from UCLA and Oregon, among others.
Steve Sarkisian, UW’s former coach, went so far last August – before Ross had even played for the Huskies – as to say Ross was the fastest player he’d coached since Reggie Bush, the former USC Heisman Trophy winner Ross describes as “my idol,” the guy whose name will forever be synonymous with the Trojans’ dominance of the mid-2000s.
There were flashes of that ability during Ross’ freshman year, in which he caught 16 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown in somewhat limited action at receiver. That touchdown was a 57-yard catch-and-run from quarterback Cyler Miles during a blowout of Idaho State.
Then, the kickoff return, a 100-yard venture through Brigham Young’s coverage team that sparked the Huskies’ victory in the Fight Hunger Bowl in December.
Oh, and the 4.29-second, hand-timed 40-yard dash he ran during the Husky Combine in May.
New coach Chris Petersen said he doesn’t put all that much emphasis on 40-times, if only because hand timing leads to inherent inaccuracies.
But of Ross, he knows this: “That guy’s one of the most explosive athletes I’ve ever been around. No doubt. He is a different level of explosiveness.”
Of that 40-time – which, if accurate, would have been second-best among participants at this year’s NFL scouting combine – Ross says: “I still feel like I can do better, honestly.”
That’s the mentality with which Ross seems to be approaching nearly every facet of his sophomore season – that his freshman year wasn’t as good as it could have been, that he can run not only faster, but with more efficiency and with better technique.
“Expanding my knowledge, because I came in not knowing too much,” Ross said after Wednesday’s practice. “I was eager to learn, but it’s not easy going from one paper to a whole playbook, from hand signals to 100 different hand signals. Just things like that.”
Sarkisian bemoaned last season that he didn’t make enough of an effort to get the ball in Ross’ hands, evidenced by his 16 receptions in 13 games. New offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said he understands why the Huskies struggled to find Ross.
For one, Bishop Sankey was one of the best running backs in the country, and his 327 rushing attempts were both necessary and deserved. Star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins needed touches, too.
“He’s just going to hopefully see more balls than he did last year,” Smith said. “You look at last year’s team, obviously I wasn’t here for it, but there’s some talent around him. You’ve got to get the ball to the back and the tight end. Those guys are out the door, and hopefully we can get him the ball some more.”
Ross’ speed has earned him a spot in what he, junior Jaydon Mickens and junior Marvin Hall refer to as the “Legion of Zoom,” a play on the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” nickname assigned to their hard-hitting defensive backs.
Those three are currently the only members of the self-appointed crew, though Mickens and Ross joke that they’re currently reviewing the credentials of sophomore tight end Darrell Daniels.
Jokes aside, Ross could be one of UW’s most valuable offensive players this season. He also played some defensive back in 2013 and worked there some in the spring, but has yet to put in any time with the defense during fall camp.
Instead, he’s honing his technique, working on catching the ball better, and trying to further polish the kickoff return skills that made it hell for high-school defenses – and BYU’s, too – to chase him around.
“I missed opportunities,” Ross said of his freshman season. “I should have had a better year than what I did. ... I’m in a good position now, I’m looking forward now and I just want to make the best of this year.”