The process, like the John Ross highlight reel, tended to repeat itself whenever a college recruiter would come into Thomas Barnes’ coach’s office at Long Beach (Calif.) Jordan High.
The recruiter would sit down, watch a few of Ross’ long kickoff returns and, inevitably, turn to Barnes: “Coach, I’ve seen enough.”
In Ross’ three seasons at Jordan, Barnes estimates that the slightly-built wide receiver returned “at least” 20 kickoffs for a touchdown.
“I mean, it gets boring watching kickoff after kickoff after kickoff,” Barnes said, chuckling.
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The 5-foot-11, 173-pound freshman will play — and perhaps even start — in his first college game Saturday night against No. 19 Boise State. But as the reopening of Husky Stadium gets closer, UW coach Steve Sarkisian says he is reluctant to give Ross too much too soon.
To which Barnes responds, “Why?”
“Go ahead,” Barnes says. “He’s a special kid. He’s not going to disappoint you.”
TO THE LEFT of Ross’ station in one corner of UW’s new locker room is junior middle linebacker John Timu, a team captain and fellow Jordan product. Timu was on the sideline Oct. 8, 2010 when Ross, then a sophomore, helped Jordan rally from a 12-point deficit with 88 seconds left to beat rival El Toro 22-20.
First, Ross returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown (yawn). After a successful onside kick, Jordan scored on a long touchdown pass to tie the score at 20. On the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, Ross took a handoff on a reverse, juked a defender “out of his shoes,” as Barnes recalled, and scored to give the Panthers the improbable win.
“It was awesome,” Timu said Monday, adding: “When he first came to Jordan, people didn’t believe the hype he had. They kind of underestimated his speed. … It was crazy the amount of difference he made.”
A few years later, Ross is said to be the fastest player on the UW roster. Sarkisian, on his radio show this week, went so far to say that Ross is the fastest player he has coached since Reggie Bush. And as impressive as Ross has been in jumping into the mix as the co-starter at slot receiver, he’ll likely have the chance to make his biggest difference as a punt returner. (He’s listed as a possible starter there, alongside junior receiver Kasen Williams.)
Ross and Timu remain close. Yes, the linebacker who makes a living, if you will, taking down skill players is doing his best to lift up this young receiver from the same neighborhood in greater Los Angeles.
Said Timu, “I tell him every day, ‘Just relax. Go in your own comfort zone and play ball. … It’s going to be real loud (in the stadium), and everybody’s watching you. You be the show for them.’ ”
Washington quarterback Keith Price knew some of what to expect with Ross when the freshman arrived on campus this summer. Price’s younger brother, Kaelon, played Pop Warner football with Ross, and Kaelon was the quarterback throwing to Ross at Jordan High last season.
The Huskies’ senior quarterback said he’s thrilled to have Ross in the Huskies’ arsenal now.
“Every time he has the ball in his hands,” Price said, “you kind of hold your breath because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
AFTER ONE OF Ross’ recent punt returns in a UW scrimmage, Sarkisian evoked memories of Bush when recalling a particularly effective cut Ross had made. Teammates have whispered the similarities to Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas because Ross, too, has shown the ability to take a simple play and turn it into something spectacular.
Fair comparisons? Maybe. Maybe not.
As Sarkisian said Monday, the Huskies won’t start to know how good — or how special — Ross can be until he puts on pads and plays under the lights in front of 70,000 fans on national television Saturday night.
“I feel good,” Sarkisian said. “We put him in as many tough situations as we could. I can’t recreate 70,000 people; that’s the part that I can’t do. We’ve done everything from the hotel, to the uniforms, to the Dawg Walk to pregame warm-ups to putting him back there on punts with live punt coverage — all those things. But until he actually has to do it (in a game), we’ll see. But I feel good about it. He’s got a great demeanor about himself.”
Another touted freshman receiver, 6-3, 225-pound Damore’ea Stringfellow, is listed as Williams’ backup at wideout. A third freshman receiver, Darrell Daniels (6-4, 232), could also contribute this season, Sarkisian said.
The Huskies have not made freshmen available for media interviews, but Timu said Ross, for one, is handling the hype well.
“I think he’s doing a pretty good job for someone who’s expected to come out and do a lot of big things,” Timu said. “The thing about him is, he’s calm. … He has a lot to prove, and he knows that, (but) he has a confidence within himself and his abilities, and I think he knows the playbook pretty well. After that, it’s just (about) being him — fast.”
Ross’ old coach remains confident.
“You think you’ve seen something in practice?” Barnes asked. “Just wait until the lights come on.”
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @a_jude