John Ross III is back from a knee injury, faster and hoping to add a deep threat to the Washington Huskies passing game as spring drills begin.
This was just one play on the first day of spring football practice in a no-contact passing drill, so making any sweeping conclusions is premature at this point.
But any time Jake Browning throws deep and completes a pass to John Ross III, it’s progress for the Huskies, who struggled the past two seasons moving the ball through the air.
So when Ross sped past a defensive back, hit the brakes and raced toward his scrambling quarterback before diving to haul in a line-drive pass for a sizable gain, it drew a few cheers from teammates on the sideline.
“I haven’t had a chance to do anything like this in a very long time,” said Ross, a junior receiver making a comeback from a knee injury that forced him to sit out in 2015. “We’ve been doing player-run practices, but it’s not the same.”
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The Browning-Ross relationship will be analyzed and dissected during Washington’s 15 spring workouts.
Browning, the star-in-the-making quarterback, is looking to build on a positive freshman season, while Ross seeks to reconstruct a promising career that was derailed for a year.
“I’m feeling much better than I ever did,” Ross said. “I’m happy to be out here.”
He added: “I feel like a kid again … smiling like I used to. Not that I wasn’t smiling before, but it’s just much better to be out there participating.”
Beneath overcast skies and chilly 45-degree temperatures, Ross bounced along the practice field behind Husky Stadium on Monday morning during his first practice since a setback following January 2015 surgery to repair two meniscus tears in his right knee.
Ross has been pain free for nearly two months, but the Huskies remain cautious with his recovery and will limit him from contact drills.
“We don’t have to win spring ball with him,” coach Chris Petersen said. “We’ve got to have him ready to play in September.”
And yet Petersen, UW’s third-year coach, and new receivers coach Bush Hamden, need to find out what they have in Ross.
He never caught more than 17 passes in any of his first two seasons, but he’s been a dynamic two-way performer who has shown flashes of being a game-breaker.
As a sophomore, Ross scored seven touchdowns (four receiving, two kickoff returns and one rushing) on plays of 100, 96, 91, 86, 75, 55 and 20 yards — an average of 75 yards per scoring play.
He started three games at receiver and four at cornerback in 2014, Petersen’s first year with the Huskies.
Considering his relative unfamiliarity with Browning and Petersen’s offense, it’s unrealistic to believe Ross alone can fix UW’s pass attack, one that ranked ninth in the Pac-12 last season while averaging 239.2 yards.
“Expectations are great, but expectations need to be kept in check,” Petersen said. “We all know the explosive player that John is, but it’s not fair to him to expect him to be the answer to solve all of our issues.
“He’s got to develop, and he will, because he’s a very committed, very focused, hard-working guy. But he’s played (little) offense since we’ve been here and we’ve got to keep that in mind. He’s going to take a while to develop, and one day at a time.”
Ross returned to offense wearing his No. 1 jersey, a perpetual grin and showing no remorse after losing a season to injury.
“I’m actually happy that it happened, because I feel like I learned a lot,” he said. “I feel like it’s a blessing in disguise.”
Ross is bigger (up 22 pounds to 196) and the 5-foot-11 speedster is faster than before (he ran 40 yards in a personal best hand-timed 4.25 seconds at the Husky combine March 6).
Still so much of Ross’ success will hinge on developing a productive relationship with Browning.
“We were always close and now we have fun, talk a lot and we hang out,” Ross said. “He did such a good job last year, and I just can’t wait to see what he’s going to do this year.”
Old faces, new places
Fifth-year senior Jeff Lindquist, a former quarterback, and junior Will Dissly, who began his UW career on the defensive line, have moved to tight end. Petersen said Dissly may be a two-way player next season.
Perhaps, the most intriguing position changes involved Joe Mathis and Coleman Shelton. Mathis moved from defensive line to UW’s Buck position – a hybrid end and outside linebacker – and gets the first chance to be the team’s lead pass rusher.
Shelton, who started at left tackle, left guard and right guard last season, begins spring as the No. 1 center.
And junior Connor Griffin, a tight end last season, is now a receiver.
• Freshman tailback Sean McGrew, one of the prizes of the 2016 recruiting class, did not enroll early at UW to participate in spring drills as some expected. The four-star prospect will finish up at Centennial High in Corona, Calif., and should join the Huskies this summer.
• There are three additions to UWs spring roster — freshman punter/kicker Van Soderberg, freshman outside linebacker Amandre Williams and sophomore walk-on defensive back Mason Stone.
• On Sunday, the Huskies received their bowl rings for their 44-31 victory over Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
• Petersen on UW senior running back Deontae Cooper transferring to San Jose State: “Great kid. We all know that. Wanted more touches. He thinks this opportunity is going to give him a chance to do that.”