Ross showed what the Huskies were missing last season, and what they are savoring this year.
Shortly after he underwent surgery on a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in April of 2015, John Ross III had a dream. In it, he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in his first game back with the Huskies.
On Saturday, 16 often-agonizing months after he was sidelined, Ross’s dream didn’t quite come true in his return to Husky Stadium. But the junior’s performance in the Huskies’ 48-13 rout of Rutgers was close enough to storybook to make Ross shake his head in wonder.
“I’ve been looking forward to this day forever,’’ he said – so much so that he’s had his iPhone screen saver counting down the days, minutes and seconds to the UW opener.
Ross didn’t get to bring the opening kickoff to the house because Husky coach Chris Petersen deferred after winning the coin toss – despite good-natured lobbying all week from Ross to bag that customary strategy.
But Ross did take the first kickoff he saw, late in the first half, for a 92-yard touchdown explosion, causing teammate Dante Pettis to predict afterward, “I’d be surprised if anyone else kicks to him the rest of the season.”
Ross also grabbed touchdown passes of 38 and 50 yards from Jake Browning in the first quarter, providing an instantaneous glimpse of both what the Huskies were missing last season, and what they are savoring this year.
The Huskies simply didn’t have a big-play weapon of Ross’ caliber last year, and that deficiency hampered the Huskies’ offense. This is a guy who had touchdowns of 91, 20, 55, 75, 87, 100 and 96 yards as a sophomore – despite playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee and also putting in a stint as a defensive back.
After devoting himself to his rehab, Ross says he’s bigger and faster than ever — both verifiable, by the way. And UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith grins at the game-planning vistas that have opened up for him, particularly with Browning’s newfound feathery touch on long throws.
“If you find (Ross) isolated at any time, you feel like you have a winner there,’’ Smith said. “So that adds a big dimension.”
One of those Ross touchdowns, Smith said, was supposed to be a running play, but Browning recognized the one-on-one matchup and let ’er rip. The possibility of such big plays down the road is exciting to everyone in the Husky program, but on Saturday, they were more consumed with the human aspect of Ross’ comeback. And so they engulfed him in the end zone after his first TD.
“That’s the best part, because I’m doing it for those guys, really,’’ Ross said. “Just to see the smile on their face, and for them to tell me, ‘Oh, you’re back!’ – I feel loved, and I appreciate those guys so much.”
Ross admits that he had some doubts about his ability to come back in the immediate shock of the injury, suffered during spring practice in 2015.
“I think that’s everyone’s first mindset,’’ he said. “That’s the negative side of tearing a knee. You always think the worst. But we have great strength and conditioning coaches, and great trainers. They were always in my ear telling me I’m going to get better. I just trusted them.”
Ross had a vision of making it back to action last year, but deep down he knew it was unrealistic. And as heartwarming as his teammates’ reaction was on Saturday, he had already experienced their support long ago.
“The day I got back, when we were grinding before we were even in pads, talking about plays, they welcomed me back,’’ he said.
It wasn’t always smooth for Ross, because it never is after a surgery of that extent.
“We talk a lot, and I could tell when he’d be a little upset if his leg didn’t feel right at first,’’ Pettis said. “He’d always push through it. I definitely admire him for everything he’s been through.”
About that same time, Ross began the hard but necessary work of developing a chemistry with Browning. That was something the other receivers had done during the quarterback’s freshman season, while Ross watched longingly from the sideline.
On Saturday, Ross caught five passes for 90 yards, totals that could have been much higher if the Huskies hadn’t reined in the offense after the first quarter.
“From day one when I was cleared and they said I could run routes, we were working on every single route,’’ Ross said. “Jake is amazing, such a hard worker. If he doesn’t like something in practice, we stay after practice to keep working on it. The chemistry is way better than it was when we started, and I’m really happy about that.”
Pettis noted that he feels like Ross is going to score every time he touches the ball, and he’s not alone in that assessment. But Petersen, while only half-facetiously referring to Ross as “superman,” realizes that his impact will ultimately be weighed in conjunction with the entire receiving corps.
“John is as fast and explosive as they come,’’ Petersen said. “It’s a nice weapon for our offense to have. We want to give the other guys a chance to develop because it can’t just be the John Ross Show. People will figure out how to slow that down fast.”
In the meantime, don’t expect Ross to have a new dream to chase.
“I barely dream,’’ he said with a laugh. “I can barely sleep these days. I’m so happy I’m back, it’s kind of hard to stay asleep.”