It’s Monday, August 22, just under two weeks until Mississippi State’s first game of the season, the home-opener against South Alabama. On the practice fields at the Seal Football Complex a half-mile north of Davis Wade Stadium, the Bulldogs are going through one of their final preseason practices before they transition to game prep.
It’s early in practice when receivers and defensive backs are doing 1-on-1 drills. Senior wideout Fred Ross is given the playcall, the route to run against the corner trying to cover him. However, Ross never finishes the route. He slips out of the break and falls to the ground before the pass can be completed.
Physically, he’s fine. As a football player, he should be fine, too. Should be. Ross set three school records as a junior last season, becoming the first All-SEC receiver for MSU in 20 years and the first 1,000-yard receiver in almost 40 years.
One bad rep won’t hurt him. His coaches and teammates forgot about it almost as soon as it happened. But not Ross.
It’s later in practice, and MSU is running through team drills, playing full 11-on-11. Ross is on the sideline for this drive, but then he hears wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales call the play out. It’s the same one Ross slipped on in 1-on-1 drills.
Ross runs and grabs the receiver who is supposed to be on the field and pulls him back.
“Coach,” Ross says, looking to Gonzales, “I want it.”
In that moment, Gonzales remembers the slip from earlier in practice. Happily, the coach obliges his star receiver.
“No matter what,” Gonzales later explained when sharing the memory, “he wants to get better.”
Those on the outside see the speed, the athleticism and the strong hands displayed in games, but to those inside the program, it’s the moments in practice like that one that make Ross such a good receiver. He happens to have a great many physical talents, yes, but those would be wasted if he wasn’t a hard worker – the hardest worker, according to his coaches.
It sounds like a cliché, and in many situations it would be. It sounds boring, and maybe it is, even in this situation. But Ross’s dedication to improving himself, his unflinching work ethic and his determination to be perfect are what have made him so successful, and why he will continue to be successful as long as he plays.
“I flip on film,” Gonzales said, “to me, that’s what separates him from everybody else – the work ethic that he has.
“Then you couple that with his athleticism, that’s what makes a special player,” he continued. “All the great players I’ve ever been around have an incredible work ethic. When they get on the field, they flip the switch and understand it’s their time to get better. ‘Every rep for me is a time for me to get better. Every rep I take.’”
“He’s a worker,” head coach Dan Mullen answered when asked what makes Ross so good. “He’s got a great amount of talent, but he’s a great guy for people to look up to. I think he’s going to be very, very successful throughout his career, even beyond Mississippi State, because of his work ethic. He’s a guy that just isn’t, ‘Hey, I’ll show up. I know my position. Throw me the ball and I’ll go make a play.’ He knows every single one of the receiver positions. He’s constantly working on his technique and fundamentals, constantly working on catching the football and trying to get better every single day.”
And there, Mullen hit on something very important for both Ross and for MSU in 2016: he can play every position. His first two years, Ross was an outside receiver. Last year, in his record-setting campaign, he played inside in the slot. His encore this season will be to do it all, a magician who has built a full set of tricks. Ross will take the big stages in SEC football every week across the country and put on his show, and his coaches and teammates are thankful for it.
Ross’s ability to move all over the field gives Gonzales and Mullen something every offensive coach loves: options. It allows them to put so many of their young and talented receivers in the best position for them to succeed, because they know that any position is one in which Ross can succeed. It allows them to confuse defenses by moving Ross all over the field, exploiting matchups and creating distractions.
He can take the hard, outside boundary. He can make the field-side his domain, creating in the open spaces it provides. He can fly out of the slot. He can even line up in the backfield. He could probably throw a couple passes, if they really wanted him to.
Whatever MSU wants to do, Ross has a way to make it easier, make it better.
“He’s a smart football player,” Gonzales said. “That takes time. Over the last four years, he’s learned the position. He’s learned multiple formations. He’s learned everything. What that does is it frees you up … You can just change personnel instead of changing formations. It allows you to set him up 1-on-1, if you like that matchup. It just frees you up and it allows you to do so many different things.”
Ross’s work ethic doesn’t just make him better, it makes his entire team better.
The only hard part will be tracking everything he does. Keep an eye on No. 8 when the Bulldogs are on offense. Opposing defenses surely will.