The two wide receivers, who have played with and against each other since their high-school days, will be key players in an important Apple Cup.
John Ross III had a feeling big things were in the future for Gabe Marks.
They were teammates as teenagers for a 7-on-7 football team in the Los Angeles area. Ross was a junior at Long Beach Jordan High and Marks a senior at nearby Venice High.
“I’ll never forget it, we went 0-4 the first day and I think Gabe was busy that day,” Ross said. “He came the next day and we won every game. Almost weird. He was a big part of the reason why.
Who has the edge?
• Pac-12 leader in career receptions with 301.
• Leads WSU this season with 74 catches and 12 TDs
• First-team All-Pac 12 last year after 104 catches, 15 TDs
• Had four receiving TDs last year vs. Arizona
John Ross III
• Leads UW and Pac-12 this season with 15 TD receptions.
• Holds Husky record with four career kickoff-return TDs
• In 2014, had 7 TDs with an average distance of 75 yards
• Showed versatility by starting at cornerback in 2014
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“He was so talented when we were in high school. I knew he had game. Even on defense, he was a good safety. I knew he had big things coming to him.”
Ross, Washington’s top receiver, has been a longtime fan of Marks, Washington State’s No. 1 pass catcher, which takes some of animosity out of what’s being billed as the biggest Apple Cup of all time — with a Pac-12 North title and a trip to next week’s conference title game hanging in the balance.
The sixth-ranked Huskies (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12) and 23rd-ranked Cougars (8-3, 7-1) have high-powered offenses led by quarterbacks who have been included in Heisman Trophy conversations.
Their big-play receivers are a big reason why both teams are one win away from playing for a Pac-12 title.
“We may have put up similar numbers, but we’re different,” Ross said. “He plays in a different system that requires him to do things I don’t do. And the same for me. But I know we both like making plays for our team. If I’m honest, he’s been more consistent at it than me. And that’s why he’s so good.”
Marks carved out a record-setting career at Washington State where he has 301 receptions, a Pac-12 record. He’s the 13th receiver in NCAA FBS history with at least 300 catches.
Marks’ 3,314 receiving yards is first all-time at WSU and the ninth-best in Pac-12 history.
Washington @ Washington State, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 13
The record pursuit didn’t distract Marks, a 6-foot, 190-pound fifth-year senior. Just the opposite.
“I use it to spark me,” he said last week. “I don’t try to block it out. I try to use that energy to make plays. It doesn’t like make me nervous or anything.
“You just play. You don’t try to force the issue or anything. If the ball comes, catch it. That’s my job. Just keep doing that.”
Ross has adopted a similar philosophy in what has been a breakout year for the 5-11, 190-pound junior who sat out last season because of a knee injury.
“Once I got hurt, it took me about two weeks to learn (defensive) coverages,” Ross said. “DeAndre Goodwin, a former UW receiver, and I’d go upstairs and talk about coverages with him. It got to a point (when) he would ask me what’s this coverage and I knew it.
“When I became confident with that, it just freed me up and I could go play and use all of my God-given abilities.”
The best example of the new and improved version of Ross was on display two weeks ago during a highlight 70-yard touchdown reception against USC star cornerback Adoree Jackson.
Before the snap, Ross saw the safety move up, which indicated Jackson was in man-to-man coverage and didn’t have help on a deep route.
Ross jabbed inside and cut hard to left, which made Jackson stumble. From there, it was an easy throw for quarterback Jake Browning and catch for Ross who ran free along the sideline for his longest score this season.
Admittedly, two years ago, Ross wouldn’t have made the play.
“I would have seen the safety, but I couldn’t have told you the coverage,” he said. “I wouldn’t know if it was anything. Even with a safety high, it could be … a lot of things. But I’ve grown since then. I just knew by Adoree’s body language and the way the safety looked, it was man coverage. I knew I could make a play.”
Across the state, Marks noticed.
“It was a good release,” he said smiling.
And the Huskies are equally complimentary toward Marks.
“He’s a crisp route-runner,” UW safety Budda Baker said. “He catches the ball. He has sure hands. He’s also fast. Quarterbacks love throwing to him because they know he’s going to catch the ball.”
Marks is second in the Pac-12 with 74 receptions for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns.
When asked who he models his game after, he said former NFL great Steve Smith and UFC champion Conor McGregor.
“I try to keep it PG-13 with the trash-talking,” Marks said. “Those guys definitely go rated R, a lot. I try to keep it classy for the most part.”
Marks isn’t likely to get into a verbal sparring match with the Huskies considering he’s 1-2 against UW and has been mostly held in check during his three Apple Cup appearances.
Last year, he had seven receptions for 58 yards in a 45-10 UW victory. In 2013, Marks tallied four receptions for 46 yards in a 27-17 UW win at Husky Stadium.
Marks helped the Cougars to a 31-28 overtime victory as a freshman in 2012 when he had two catches for 13 yards.
Meanwhile, Ross is seeking his first reception against the cross-state rival.
It’s been difficult for opposing teams to shut down Ross this season. He’s caught at least four passes in every Pac-12 game.
“He worked extremely hard,” UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “He’s developed. He understands route concepts. He’s even gotten a little flavor of not always using his speed but setting up his speed.
“He’s just taken his game to another level. Again, he’s gotten himself in good shape. He’s been tough out there.”
Even after two knee surgeries, speed has never been an issue for Ross, who ran 4.25 seconds in the 40-yard sprint in the spring.
This year he’s first in the Pac-12 with 15 touchdown receptions. He leads the Huskies with 64 receptions and 991 receiving yards — needing nine to become the fifth player in UW history to top 1,000.
“If that happened, that would be really cool to be honest,” Ross said. “I don’t remember the last time it happened here. I would love to do that for our program.
“I hate looking into the future, but I’m blessed to see where God has taken me and I’m really grateful. It’s been an incredible season.”