IRVINE, Calif. — Over the past year, college football analysts and draft pundits have gushed that John Ross, the University of Washington receiver with blinding speed, could be the next DeSean Jackson. Few realized, however, that the nine-year NFL veteran had taken it upon himself to groom his potential successor.
The relationship began last summer at a barbershop in Long Beach, both players’ hometown. Ross’ father, John Ross Jr., a regular patron, bragged nearly every day that his son John III was the next big thing. Jackson’s brother, Khaled, another regular, relayed the conversation to DeSean. And so the Washington Redskins receiver decided to see for himself. He obtained Ross’ cell phone number last July and cold-called him.
“What are you doing right now?” Jackson blurted when Ross picked up.
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“Uhh…” Ross stumbled.
“You should be working out!” Jackson ordered.
“I’m sorry, who is this?” Ross asked.
“When are you going to come work out with me?”
“I’m in Seattle…” Ross said. (It was, after all, two weeks before Huskies’ training camp began.)
“So?” Jackson asked.
Two days later, Ross was on a flight back to Los Angeles. He reported to a dimly lit high school gym in Lynwood — “it felt really secluded,” Ross remembers — and sure enough, there was Jackson. In a two-hour session, Jackson had Ross mimic his footwork drills. The veteran explained what he looks for on routes. Most importantly, he imparted this advice: “You’re fast, but you don’t have to use all of your speed every single time. Use your speed as a weapon, slow down sometimes. Focus on technique and that’s how you’ll beat your guy.”
“It sounds so simple, but it’s not, and at first, I didn’t really understand,” Ross says. “But DeSean and I kept talking during the season, probably two times a week, and then it just clicked. By using his advice, that’s how I took my game to the next level.”
The combine could cement Ross’ status as the fastest player in the 2017 draft (he says he ran a laser-timed 4.30 last week). Ross led all Power-5 conference receivers with 17 touchdown catches last season, on 81 receptions for 1,150 yards — all despite missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL. Perhaps most impressive: Over three years at Washington, he had 24 touchdowns on only 134 touches on offense (not to mention an additional four TDs on kickoff returns).
A decade ago, a player with Ross’ underwhelming size (5′ 11″, 190 pounds) might have been relegated to the slot. But as top NFL corners have become bigger and more reliant on length than pure movement skills, there are now opportunities for smaller, quicker receivers to become an offense’s top target, bouncing around in formations (see: 5’11” Odell Beckham Jr., 5’10” Antonio Brown, 5’10” Doug Baldwin, 5’10” Brandin Cooks, 5’9″ T.Y. Hilton, and of course, 5’10” Jackson.)
“When you watch John Ross’ tape,” says one NFL evaluator, “you could argue he’s just an exceptional slot guy. But smart offenses will figure out ways to incorporate him everywhere.”
Ross is a likely first-round pick who already has an A-list rolodex. Besides Jackson, his most important mentor is Snoop Dogg. During the season, he was tweeted at by actress Anna Faris.
“Oh yeah,” Ross says when reminded of her compliment. “She’s pretty cool.” The only person to truly humble Ross? Washington women’s basketball sensation Kelsey Plum, who accepted his 1-on-1 challenge this fall, then won support from student onlookers in the bleachers when she hit her first 11 shots. “I was like, ‘Come on guys, where’s my love?!’” Ross says. “But of course everyone should root for Kelsey. She’s a good friend. She’s awesome.”
“It’s funny,” says his Washington position coach, Bush Hamdan, who last week was hired as the Atlanta Falcons’ new quarterbacks coach, “John Ross lives in this world with flashy guys and big names. But really, he’s just this sweet, gentle kid. I’m going to miss him like hell as a player. But I’ll miss him three times as much as a person.”
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Ross began playing football when he was 7, and scored a lot of touchdowns — so many that he developed a reputation in Long Beach. The ultimate neighborhood status was playing in Snoop Dogg’s All-Star league. One weekend, Ross went to a game with his mom, and afterward approached Snoop for an autograph. Amid the mob, the rapper looked right at him. “I know you,” Snoop said. “You’re little Ross!”
“And then John comes back to me,” recalls his mother, Dayna Mitchell, “and says Snoop wants to talk to me.” They exchanged numbers and soon, Ross was a Snoop Dogg All-Star. “People always ask me what it was like playing for Snoop,” Ross says. “I’m telling you, he actually coached. He was at every practice. He called the plays in the huddle.”
The Snoop coaching playbook, according to Ross: “Snoop loved to scrimmage. We’d get there, warm up, then he goes, ‘O.K., let’s scrimmage!’ In games, he always called an all-out blitz. Nobody calls an all-out blitz at that age. We were 9 years old. Nobody throws the ball! But he called the 6-2 Dogg House, his favorite play. That means everybody goes. Everybody. Safeties can be 30 yards deep and they come too. What’s crazy is it actually worked.”
During his elementary school years, bright lights and big names became normalized for Ross. He played at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, as an 11-year-old; he shook Ben Roethlisberger’s hand before Super Bowl XL; he spent Saturday nights sleeping over at Snoop’s mansion (a driver escorted Ross and teammates back to Long Beach in the morning). According to Ross, Snoop separated rap and football. He never smoke or drank in front of the kids, and the recording studio was off limits. “Being with Snoop was just normal,” Ross says. “We still talk a lot. The other day when I went on Instagram live, he was the first one to comment, getting on me about my haircut. He’s always looking out for me.”
Ross received his first college offers at 14: UCLA and Washington. He bonded with then-Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian by playing a dominos iPhone game every night. Sarkisian won nearly every time, but the relationship was built.
Ross joined Washington in 2013 as a four-star athlete. He was the classic example of a player with such explosive potential, coaches didn’t know how to best utilize him. As a sophomore in 2014, he scored five touchdowns on offense and two on kickoff returns. But with a depleted defensive backfield — star corner Marcus Peters was dismissed in November — Ross started the last four games as a defensive back. In the spring, Ross began training full-time at receiver. Then he tore his ACL in a non-contact drill.
“It turns out,” Ross says. “That’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
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For two hours last year, Ross owned a moped. He drove it on campus. UW coaches found out and, understandably, freaked out. By the end of the day, you have to get rid of it. So Ross borrowed his dad’s electric car. The only parking spot at the football facility with a car charger is closest to the door, usually reserved for coach Petersen. Ross was in the building so early most days, he could steal the coach’s parking spot.
If teammates ever want to know where Ross is, best guess is the hot tub. During his year of rehab, he never missed a treatment. He set up solo cone drills on the field at dawn, and waved to assistant coaches up in the windows working wee hours. He spent every practice shadowing Hamdan, a sort of coach’s apprentice. Ross had always watched film, but he never knew how to study it. “Can you show me?” he asked grad assistant D’Andre Goodwin, once a receiver for the Denver Broncos. “And teach me about coverages.”
By junior year, Ross was a certified film junkie. He downloaded Huskies film from their server, and watched it twice over. First, he’d ask, What could I do better? Then he texted Washington’s No. 2 receiver, Dante Pettis. What were you thinking on this play? Then he’d look at the freshmen. “I’d be that guy, at home on my couch texting them clips while they’re in class,” Ross explains. “Move your feet a different way this time.” He then watched Washington opponents. After that, Ross’ favorite bit: He asked grad assistants to cut up every catch by Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks and Julio Jones. “If I had to run the same route, I’d try to emulate it,” he says.
Ross had a different quarterback each year at Washington, but found his match in Jake Browning. When Browning first arrived on campus, he sent the then-injured Ross a direct message: “I’m sorry that happened to you. Let’s throw.”
“When I came [in 2015] the word around John was that he wasn’t necessarily a complete wide receiver,” Hamdan says. “From a perception standpoint, he was electric and extremely fast, but a speed guy. He just needed to hone his skills.”
As Ross melded lessons from that off-year with advice from Jackson, he thrived. He got in and out of breaks more smoothly. His routes became crisper.
“We see so much press coverage these days,” Hamdan says. “We knew if we could just get him off the line of scrimmage, utilize his speed and create separation, he’d be unstoppable.”
Hamdan, like most who encounter Ross, fell in love with his positivity. “John is the kind of guy who can make anyone laugh,” says his current roommate and childhood friend, Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols.
“Some days he’d come in the meeting room, and if he wasn’t smiling I’d send him back out to come in again with a smile,” Hamdan says. “Because my day was affected if he wasn’t overly in a great mood. This is the greatest kid I will ever coach. His personality is contagious.”
Ross says he has never drank nor smoked. He rarely goes out. (It’s a big deal when he does, friends say, though Ross says there’s only so much fun he can have standing in a corner sipping a Dasani.) His one vice is Wingstop — he even went the day of the Huskies’ playoff game against Alabama. Each day, Ross texts his mom “Good Morning.” He bowls, though he says he’s not very good at it, and still plays dominoes on his phone. (And says he’s much improved: “I bet I can take on anyone now.”)
Ross is also a competitor. Washington had two of the top corners in the country in Kevin King and Sidney Jones, and every day at practice they’d fight to face Ross. Now training in Irvine for the draft, Ross went nearly six weeks without working with a live quarterback. Last week, UNC’s Mitch Trubisky came by for a session. “It was difficult catching from him because it was my first time catching since the [playoff] game,” Ross says. “He was putting it right where it needed to be. He was throwing it on the money.”
When Ross left the facility, he thought to himself, “That kid can really play.” And then another thought: “Tomorrow I’m going to be a lot better than today.”
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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. The curious case of Chad Kelly. Combine invites were released last week and the Ole Miss senior quarterback, nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, was among the notable omissions. The quarterback’s camp has gone on the offensive, saying the NFL initially invited Kelly to the combine in January and rescinded his invitation without clarification. One of Kelly’s agents, Van McAllister, told Buffalo’s 1270 Radio: “Until we get a written disinvite or whatever you want to call if from the league, we’ll be in Indy. We’ll show up and they’ll have to tell Chad ‘no’ then because they’re obviously not willing to put it in writing to tell Chad ‘no’ now.” Kelly’s dis-invitation appears to be an application of the new NFL rule blocking players convicted of violent crimes from attending. (The same reason Joe Mixon will not be in Indianapolis). I wrote about Kelly’s spotty past in October, and there is one incident the NFL likely flagged: In January 2015, Kelly pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct stemming from a fight with two nightclub bouncers. Kelly was initially accused of punching two people, threatening to “spray up the place” with an AK-47 and resisting arrest. The charges were dismissed when Kelly completed the terms of the plea agreement, including 50 hours of community service. A few things to look for going forward: Will the NFL budge and allow Kelly to attend the combine after all? (Probably not.) Will Kelly and his agents follow through on threats that they’ll show up anyway? (My guess is that they’ll likely hear from the NFL before that happens.) I do not think this is a total detriment of Kelly’s NFL chances, though his prospects have been murky for the last few months. At best, right now, he is a late-round flier. Remember, as he recovers from an ACL surgery, he could not have participated in most combine drills anyway, and he did team interviews last month in Mobile at the Senior Bowl.
2. I am concerned about the implementation of this new NFL policy banning prospects from the combine because of past violent behavior. There seems to be little transparency (as evidenced by the Kelly situation) and little consistency. In 2014, then-TCU edge rusher Devonte Fieldswas charged with misdemeanor assault after allegedly pointing a gun at his ex-girlfriend, punching her in the head and yelling “I should blast you.” He was dismissed from TCU. The charges were ultimately dropped in exchange for completing anger management courses, and Fields moved on to junior college then Louisville. He was invited to the combine. Though Fields was never convicted, the NFL policy clearly uses discretion. How is Fields’ situation different than Kelly’s?
3. There was some movement last week from coaches jumping from the NFL to college ranks, and vice versa. The most notable transaction was Nick Saban hiring Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll to be his new offensive coordinator, further entwining the coaching trees of Bill Belichick and Saban. Meanwhile, the Falcons have hired former Washington receivers coach/pass game coordinator Bush Hamdan to be their new quarterbacks coach. It will be Hamdan’s eighth stop in the nine years since he was hired as a Colorado student assistant in 2009. In two years at Washington, where he reunited with his former coach Chris Petersen (Hamdan was a Boise State quarterback from 2005-08), Hamdan had a growing role in Washington’s overachieving offense. I actually spoke to the 31-year-old Hamdan on the phone last week, two days before his NFL hiring was announced, for my story on Ross. I was impressed by his energy and tight relationship with players. I’m curious to see how he works with Matt Ryan (they are the same age, 31), but I know from a personality standpoint he’ll mesh well with Dan Quinn. Meanwhile, Ross could not be more effusive on praise for his old coach. “That’s my guy. The relationships he builds with players, the way he teaches, the way he inspires you to want to be better every day, I’m going to miss working with him so much.”
4. The most impressive haul of combine invites comes from Michigan; 14 Wolverines will be present: OL Ben Braden, TE Jake Butt, DL Taco Charlton, WR Jehu Chesson, CB Jeremy Clark, WR Amara Darboh, LB Ben Gedeon, DL Ryan Glasgow, S Delano Hill, CB Jourdan Lewis, S Jabrill Peppers, RB De’Veon Smith, CB Channing Stribling and DL Chris Wormley. The next closest schools are Alabama and LSU, with 10 invites apiece. In October, Jim Harbaugh said he believed there would be 10 or more Wolverines drafted in 2017, and as boastful as that sounded at the time, he’s probably right. Only three Michigan players were drafted in 2016, none higher than the third round. Charlton and Peppers are first round candidates while Lewis and Wormley are, at this moment, in second-round range.
5. Several high-profile players will miss combine workouts. ESPN’s Adam Caplan reported that Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster underwent shoulder surgery on his right rotator cuff. Foster is a potential top five pick. Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis’s ankle injury will prevent him from doing drill work, and Ohio State safety Malik Hooker reportedly had hip surgery that will sideline him. And as mentioned previously in this column, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, jostling with Ross and Clemson’s Mike Williams to be the top receiver off the board, reportedly injured his ankle, which will prevent him from running in Indianapolis. All of the above players are expected to attend the combine anyway for team interviews.
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GET TO KNOW A PROSPECT
A quick Q&A with a prospect generating some buzz. This week, Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols. It’s a loaded class at running back, but McNichols is the do-everything back that plugs into any modern NFL offense. A protégée of ex-teammate and Miami Dolphins breakout star Jay Ajayi, McNichols’ production at Boise State certainly caught scouts’ attentions. In two seasons as the Broncos’ lead back after Ajay left, McNichols had 3,046 rushing yards (5.5 per carry) and 43 rushing touchdowns, plus 934 yards on 88 catches and 10 receiving touchdowns. Though his size (5′ 9″, 212-pounds) is below average, McNicols’ vision, versatility and shiftiness make him a mid-round prospect.
Give me a scouting report of yourself.
Blocking is probably one of my best assets. Catching as well. I can also run through the tackles. I always break the first tackle and get to the second level.
You were incorporated into the passing game a lot at in college. Is that something you enjoy?
Absolutely. I used to play receiver when I was in high school. So catching the ball and running routes for me is natural. Being able to have that arsenal as a running back makes me deadly and coveted of what NFL teams are looking for.
Who do you model your game after?
I grew up watching LaDainian Tomlinson. We’re about the same size, can catch a lot of balls in the backfield, he’s a guy that ran through tackles, and he could play special teams as well.
What are you working on before the combine?
Explosiveness. I don’t think I was explosive enough when I got to the second level. I also am working on my sideline running, staying in bounds.
So you have a good relationship with Jay Ajayi…
Oh yeah, that’s like my big bro. He treats me like his little brother. We only were teammates one year but it’s a relationship we’ve maintained. We talk probably more than two times a week ever since he went on to the NFL. When I first got to school, he took me under his wing. It was fun watching him break out this year, but it wasn’t crazy. I expected that. He was overlooked, he should’ve been one of the top two running backs when he came out, he shouldn’t have gone in the fifth round. I feel like that happens a lot coming out of a smaller school like Boise State.
What advice from Jay have you taken to heart?
A lot of off-the-field stuff. He always says you need to handle your business off the field, with school make sure you’re taking that seriously, being in the community and showing your face, just being a good person overall, he says you can’t overlook that stuff. And on the field, it’s just like being a dog. Just being that guy that nobody can touch, nobody can tackle, every time he gets the ball he has the mindset that he can score and be special.
This is such a deep year for running backs in the draft. Why declare early?
It is deep, but also I feel like next year is going to be deep. I felt like I had accomplished everything that I had wanted to accomplish in college—I won a big bowl game, won a conference championship, got to play behind Jay for a year then took over for him. The decision came down to this: Running backs don’t really last that long in the league and just in football in general. So after the year I had, I knew that that my game would translate to the NFL. So coming out early was the best option for me.
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SCORCHING HOT HEADLINE OF THE WEEK
Regular readers of this column might notice I have a not-so-slight fascination with LSU coach Ed Orgeron. His deep-rooted ties to the Bayou are to be admired, evidenced by consuming 19 servings of gumbo in a one-week span while on the recruiting trail. But this… this is something else.
Per Ross Dellenger of The Advocate: “Ed Orgeron was just presented with a key to the local jail. Just in case, the sheriff says, an LSU player finds his way into there.”