Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Leading Bulldog Receiver Puts a Spark in State's Punt Return Game

Aspiring special teamers out there, pay close attention. Fred Ross will give the secret to earning a job at this SEC level; specifically his job of returning punts. Ready? Here it is. “Just catching punts in practice.”

Ummm…OK. That’s it? That’s all? No highly-technical process, no involved statistical analysis? Correct. Ross won the right to field and return punts because he was the most reliable catcher in camp.

“I didn’t really do nothing special. Just showing Coach Mullen I could catch the ball consistently.”

Talk about a letdown. One would think Ross blew his competition away in spring and preseason on fancy footwork, breaking big returns. Yet this seemingly-simple answer really reveals a key to how Mississippi State has turned 2015 punt return into a net-positive.

How? By not making many negative plays. And that means first fielding every punt practical. Wide receiver Ross is the Dog most trusted in this regard.

“Yes, (Mullen) told me at the beginning of the year we don’t need to let the ball bounce around. If you see it off his foot, go get it. Making a fair catch, he said that’s not so bad either. So he kind of tells me to trust myself.”

Putting faith in junior wideout Ross has been rewarded. Last Saturday, spectacularly so. Ross’ weaving, winding 77-yard return for touchdown blew the Troy game open. Now remember, it was also Ross scoring the game’s first touchdown. He turned a Dak Prescott pass around the line of scrimmage into a 59-yard sideline dash.

That catch-and-carry was good for Ross’ initial junior season score, a topic he’d been getting a bit sensitive on after posting five touchdowns last year. But it was his return touchdown that really lights his eyes days later.

“That was big-time. That was my first college special teams touchdown so it meant a lot to me.”

Ross had some shots as a sophomore. He took over returning punts mid-season and got seven chances to run them back, ending up with a healthy 10.7 yard average. So he had a head-start on keeping that role coming into 2015.

Even then there was honest April and August competition with CB Will Redmond, WR Gabe Myles, and more taking turns fielding practice punts. The choice wasn’t made on ’14 stats but Ross’ reliable decision making in all sorts of scripted situations. Oh, and that he didn’t drop anything kicked his way, either.

Returning? That is phase two.

“The biggest thing is just seeing it off his foot and making that split (second) decision. Knowing if you’re either going to catch it or fair-catch it, I think that’s the hardest part. I mean after you catch the ball natural ability takes over from there.”

The irony of course is that in his first chance of 2015, Ross suffered a surprising snafu. A Southern Mississippi punt and a not especially well-lit field caused some uncertainty. Ross let the ball bounce, then grabbed as it went beside him. It became a rolling fumble recovered by the home team and setting up points.

Ross will wear that one. “I mean, I had made the decision…and the ball took a bad bounce. I made the same decision against Alabama last year but I caught it. The ball just bounced the wrong way.” The point is, he shook it off. And the coaches stuck by their own decision whom to trust.

“That’s just kind of what happens. I wasn’t really too down on myself because I didn’t hesitate to make it, I just made it and that’s just how football is.”

Naturally, observers make most of the big returns. Mullen’s math is about the net-result. Letting punts bounce is a great way to get awful field position. The fact is, Ross will usually do more to help the offense he runs routes for by just catching a typical punt and staying put. If he can scramble for a few return yards, that’s gravy.

And, on the whole, he is left alone to make those calls on his own reading of the kick and coverage. “If I’m close enough Coach G (Billy Gillespie) will be like ‘you’ve got room, you’ve got room’. But other than that nah, it’s just kind of a split decision.”

Mullen and staff clearly have decided kick return teams have to give Mississippi State more. The emphasis began last year but now is paying off more obviously. WR Brandon Holloway’s 100-yard kickoff return at Hattiesburg provided State’s first points of the entire season. Now Ross has added a punt touchdown. It’s surprising, and frustrating too, to know that the last season State got six-pointers off both a kickoff and punt play was way, way back in 1998.

If Ross—and Holloway and others—have their way, Bulldog return teams won’t stop at one score apiece. “We emphasize that a lot at practice, we spend a lot of time on it. Guys are buying in and doing their job.”

But remember, the secret is out. Job-one is just catch that kick.

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