Ykili Ross lined up 10 yards away from senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers. Rogers held a football tucked in the crevice between his bicep and his shoulder pads. It was the first day of training camp with full pads and both players were awaiting that first collision of bodies.
Unlike some receivers who tried to juke their defender, Rogers was seeking out contact, going straight toward the end line and it was Ross’ job to stop him. Ross came up and delivered a blow. It was therapeutic and a relief. It was something he hadn’t done in nearly a year and his surgically repaired right shoulder absorbed the impact with no ill effects.
“Honestly, I was kind of nervous. Why? I don't know,” Ross said. “My first time back out there off surgery, so I'm trying hard not to let it get to my mind. It was kind of hard the first day, but now that it's over, I can get over it. I know my body is real strong. I'm in way better shape than I was last year. Best shape of my life.
“There's honestly no reason for me to be thinking about it, but there's always that little fright, that little nervousness at first, but when I hit DRog — he's about 215-220 — I got over it real quick after that.”
And with one pop of the pads, Ross cleared one of the biggest hurdles for his redshirt freshman season. Though he began the fall as a third-string safety, Ross has been one of the most noticeable defenders through the first week of practice.
After the injury forced him to redshirt last season, he is back with a vengeance as he tries to earn favor and playing time with new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Ross has been flying around the ball and has made a strong impression, already being noted multiple times during head coach Clay Helton’s post-practice media scrums.
“Clancy has been very pleased with him,” Helton said last week. “He had a great offseason. He was hurt last year, spring-wise was very limited and then comes into this camp and he's been lights out.”
The safety position has been beset by injuries with Chris Hawkins, John Plattenburg, Marvell Tell III, Jamel Cook and Matt Lopes all missing time during the first week. All five missed Thursday’s practice. Ross is trying to make the most of his extra practice reps and, according to Helton, his play on the field has him climbing the depth chart.
“He's putting great stuff on tape and usually when young guys do that they're going to climb up the ladder, so [I’m] very proud of his efforts thus far.”
"The kid has come out with a great attitude,” defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford said. “He’s done well. The kid studies hard, works hard and asks questions. I'm impressed by what I've seen so far.”
It’s not just the coaches that are noticing Ross’ performance. His teammates see the impact he is having as well.
"We have injuries,” Tell said of the safety position. “You know people got to step up and he's been willing to do that for us and he's been good. We've all got learning to do, but he's filling that void and I think he's doing a pretty good job. He’s a great player. He’s an athlete just like the rest of us. He’s doing well.”
“I’m trying to take full advantage of it, make the most of my opportunities, take it play by play,” Ross said of the extra reps injuries have created. “It's a lot of adjustments, lot of different things going on. [I have to] make sure I know my alignment, assignment and attack when it's time to attack.”
With the assistance of Ivan Lewis and the strength staff, Ross molded his body in the offseason after recovering from the shoulder surgery. He said he feels better than he ever has before.
When the players came in for summer workouts, Lewis constantly reminded them that they ‘get to’ work and improve themselves rather than ‘having to’ wake up for conditioning before most people are out of the bed. Ross took that to heart.
“Only you know if you're really giving your hardest and I make sure I give my hardest every single time, every single day,” Ross said. “At the end of the day, I ended up in the best shape of my life. My body percent fat is probably about three percent right now. I feel better than ever. I'm moving amazingly. My athleticism is out the world right now.”
"YK has always been a baller," cornerback Adoree' Jackson said. "You seen in high school. We just knew it was time. One thing I told him was to stay patient. God's timing is always perfect.
"A lot of guys want to come in and do this right away. One of the things that KU [defensive line coach and former USC All-American Kenechi Udeze, who redshirted his first year on campus] told everybody when he came in was that he redshirted and it's no problem about redshirting. It's to get you developed. I think that time off got him to be developed and Coach Clancy coming in the spring helped out a tremendous lot, so now he's playing with a lot of confidence."
The mental side of the game is where Ross has focused his attention this fall. The Riverside (Calif.) Poly cornerback and wide receiver believes in his athletic ability. He trusts that he can beat whoever he is lined up against as long as he is in the right place. That’s why he’s trying to learn everything from “the playbook to the formations to what they’re going to do pre snap.”
“I know I can play and I know nobody can get me one on one, so it's honestly just getting in my playbook and doing what I've got to do there.”
Ross is 90 percent comfortable with the playbook. He’s nearly willing to bump that to 100 percent. He knows exactly what he’s supposed to do — all the pre snap reads, the calls and each of the checks. But he wants to get more reps under his belt before he makes that claim because he understands that until you are going full game speed, you haven’t really proven what you know.
When the live action starts flying around you, can you lock in and remained focused? Ross is confident he can, but wants his actions to speak before his words.
“I'll get better and better and better as the reps go. I’ve slowly been progressing every day. I'm just making sure I give my full effort every single play. I'm running to all of the balls, making sure I give all my calls and attacking when it's time to attack and just playing the game, trying not to think as much.
“I'm just trying to get to that point where I'm playing without thinking and I feel like I got to that point a little bit. I've been flying around these last couple of days, so it's getting better and better.”
One hit at a time.
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