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12 for ‘16: John Ross returns from injury faster, stronger and as the Washington Huskies’ go-to receiver

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Once known as flashy and fast, the junior wideout was virtually uncoverable on his way to All Pac-12 honors

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: The individuals, games, and plays that made up the character of the 2016 season are the reason for the 12 for ‘16 series. This isn’t a countdown. Rather, we are talking about what we were talking about in 2016. Enjoy.

There was really no sensible reason why we should have expected John Ross to be an 81-catch, 1150 yard receiver one year removed from knee surgery. After all, Ross had never caught more than 17 passes in a season entering 2016. In fact, there wasn’t any evidence or precedent that would have led a reasonable person to predict that Ross would lead the team in receiving, let alone become the first Husky to top 1100 yards since Reggie Williams did it 13 years prior.

Double digit Touchdowns? Maybe. 19 of them? Come on, man.

The first look most fans got at John Ross III in 2016 was during Washington’s Spring Preview. My eyes popped; “Did Damore'ea Stringfellow transfer back to UW?” I asked myself in jest. Ross looked bigger, thicker... sturdier. He ran precise routes and the ball stuck to his hands as if they were coated in flypaper. Many a star is born in spring football only to flounder come the season, but Ross appeared to be the real deal. Jake Browning looked for him over and over, and the timing between those two was exemplary.

No, it did not stand to reason that Ross should be a volume-catch wide receiver and an unstoppable red-zone target. But the eye test said something else: This guy looks really, really good out there.

In the season opener against Rutgers, Ross returned to game action with a splash. He hauled in TD passes of 38 and 50 yards in the first quarter, then returned a kickoff 92 yards for another score just before halftime. He had only 2 other catches in the game for just 2 more yards, and the thought was this: John Ross is back and he is still fast, and should be a big play guy for the Huskies. That part wasn’t really surprising. Most thought if he stayed healthy, Ross would catch some bombs, run wild on a few reverses, and bring fans to their feet with his big play ability.

Early in the season, Ross was pretty quiet other than his initial explosion in the Rutgers game. UW steamrolled the non-conference schedule and Ross wasn’t asked to do much. He amassed just 77 yards with no catch over 12 yards in the Idaho and Portland State games combined, though he did snag a pair of TDs.

When Pac-12 play began in Tuscon against Arizona, Ross drew a couple pass interference calls and scored touchdowns on the ground and through the air (giving him 7 TDs in 4 games), but was largely unspectacular overall in the receiving game with only 4 catches for 28 yards. Four catches. That doesn't sound like much does it? It’s not, unless you catch at least that many balls in every game the rest of the season. A volume receiver doesn’t get shut down. He doesn’t disappear for two games. He catches multiple passes every week. He makes first downs and he makes touchdowns.

Pac-12 opponents quickly learned that Ross was Washington’s best offensive player and tried to take him away, but simply could not.

  • Four catches averaging over 20 yards apiece against Stanford (and a TD).
  • Nine catches and three scores at Oregon.
  • 115 yards on four grabs against Oregon State.
  • Four more catches at Utah and another pair of scores.
  • Six catches, 208 yards, and three TDs while making the Cal Bears look downright silly:

UW was shut down on offense for much of the game against USC, but not John Ross. Another eight catches (for 154 yards) including this video-game move at the line of scrimmage against All-American Adoree’ Jackson:

Watch him jab inside in the above clip. That isn’t simply a juke; it’s an Allen Iverson cross-over. Joel Klatt was calling the game for Fox and said that Jackson “slipped.’ Gus Johnson quickly corrected him: “That’s not a slip, Joel Klatt. That is what we call an ankle-breaker.”

To quote my partner in the UW DawgPound “Film Study” series Brad Johnson, John Ross’ legs are “made of space-age material.” What Ross learned to do last season was use his speed as a deep threat to set up other patterns on the route tree. That’s not to imply that Ross has mastered the route tree, not even close. But with his space-age gift and a quarterback who makes accurate throws that are on time, he really only needed a sampling of that tree to be damn near uncoverable.

He’d finish out the regular season schedule with a season-high 12 grabs against Arizona State, and tally eight more catches in the Apple Cup and (ho-hum) another TD. Against Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship, the passing game was not clicking and Ross had only 3 catches for 32 yards midway through the 3rd quarter. That’s when he made a one-handed snag of a ball that Browning would later admit he was trying to throw away. That highlight-reel play would end up as Ross’ 17th and final touchdown reception of the season.

I’m not sure at what point during the season it was when I realized that Ross was playing his final games as a Husky. It might have been at Oregon when he made a stretching endzone snag while precisely tapping his foot just inside the boundary. It could have been the Cal game where his keystone cops routine shown above landed him on every highlight show in America. I changed my outlook from salivating over what Browning to Ross could be in 2017 to simply appreciating that I could watch him suit up and play great football every week.

What kind of a pro will John Ross III be? Probably a pretty good one. But one thing is certain: In 2016 he delivered one of the most outstanding seasons any Washington Husky has ever had.

Thanks, Ross. You were a pleasure to watch.