Walking off the field after watching a Mississippi State football practice two weeks ago, Chad Bumphis was reminded that, by most categories, he’s the best receiver in MSU history. He smiled, acknowledging the truth in the statement, but he quickly admitted that time may be running out for him to enjoy his place in history.
“I don’t know if he’ll break all my records,” Bumphis said as he gestured to a current Bulldog receiver entering the locker room, “but he’s sure going to get at least a few of them.”
Already, Fred Ross – the receiver Bumphis was pointing toward – is on pace for the best single-season in MSU history, and he’s just a junior. It helps, of course, that he has the best quarterback the program has ever seen in Dak Prescott, but it was Ross’s hands that caught a record 81 balls in the regular season, becoming the all-time leader for a single season, with a bowl game still to go.
With 933 yards and four quarters left in the year, Ross could go even further, as 67 yards would make him only the second player in school history to have a 1,000-yard receiving season, and 103 yards would break the all-time record of 1,035 set by Mardye McDole in 1978.
The funny thing about it all: Ross says he’s actually a little behind where he thought he’d be. Coming into the season, he hoped he’d have 1,000 yards and the record all wrapped up before the bowl game kicked off.
“Hopefully I get it this game,” he said at practice for the Belk Bowl in Charlotte this week. “It’ll be fun, I guess, but if we don’t win, it won’t be fun at all.”
As soon as anyone makes a prediction, it’s sure to go wrong, but there is reason to believe Ross will hit the mark, as he’s caught at least 100 yards in his last four straight games. In fact, if he does hit 100 on December 30, it will tie him for the most 100-yard games in MSU history with eight. What’s ironic about Ross threatening so many records so early in his career, is that it was Bumphis himself who was the most vocal supporter of Ross entering this breakout junior campaign.
Injuries sidelined and hampered Ross’s first year and a half on campus, but as his health returned and when injuries struck the slot position late last season, coaches made the move that proved to be the turning point in his career. Co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Billy Gonzales, in need of talented pass catchers at a thinning position, moved Ross from the outside to the inside. The talented route-runner adjusted immediately, having a tremendous impact inside from day one.
Entering 2015, coaches decided to make the switch permanent, giving MSU a formidable inside-out duo with Ross on the inside and fellow junior receiver De’Runnya Wilson on the outside. As evidence has shown, it is immensely difficult to cover them both. As defenses have had to pick their poison, Ross has given them a full dose, excelling during the 2015 season.
Those outside the program may have been caught off guard, but those around Ross every day had no doubt what would happen this fall.
“It did not surprise me,” Gonzales said. “He’s an extremely smart football player. He’s got great ability to change direction. He’s just a really, really good route runner. He can come in and out of breaks really, really good.”
Gonzales went on to say it’s not as if Ross had some breakthrough moment or a point where things “clicked.” He just worked hard. He worked really, really hard, and when that work ethic was paired with his natural abilities, the results were hardly unexpected.
“One thing about Fred he always does,” head coach Dan Mullen said, “you just watch, he does a great job doing his job. He’s gotta block, he blocks. Running routes underneath, catching screens, running the ball, he does that. Going vertically down the field. He just doesn’t worry about doing too much. He worries about doing his job and doing it to the best of his ability. Because of that, you see the success that he’s had.”
For Ross himself, the hardest thing and the easiest thing about the transition to the inside are the same: facing linebackers. When he’s called on to block, as all receivers under Gonzales are expected to do, he said it’s much more difficult trying to stop massive SEC linebackers than, say, the average cornerback. On the flipside, when he’s running routes and trying to get open, he sees linebackers try to get their hands on him, and he’s typically able to slip on by, presenting an easy and open target for Prescott.
The impressive thing about Ross is how he seems to only get better as he goes, despite increased attention or stiff competition. In the month of November, his most recent stretch of games, not a single FBS player in the country had more catches than Ross’s 41 grabs. Ross also leads the entire SEC in receptions in conference games with 70. In fact, he only needs four catches against North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl to reach the Top 10 in SEC single-season history. Nine catches would vault him all the way up into the top five.
There have been some big moments and breakout games along the way, but Ross’ success is not about one particular instance, one individual teaching point or any specific psychological breakthrough. He’s just worked hard. And, of course, he got healthy.
“It’s a big deal,” he said with a smile.