All offseason, the Maryland football team piled on Brandon Ross. In the season finale at North Carolina, midway through the second quarter, Ross broke free into the open field. Seventy-one yards later, Ross ran out of steam, tripped up from behind by Tar Heels safety Tre Boston at the 2-yard line. Then a redshirt freshman, Ross never lived it down.
A similar situation unfolded during Saturday’s open scrimmage at Dunbar High School. On the 18th series, just seconds after Dustin Dailey hit wide receiver Amba Etta in stride for a 60-yard touchdown, Ross burst up the gut for another score, also of 60 yards. This time, with defenders nipping at his heels, Ross went in untouched.
“Oh I’ve been getting it all year, all season,” Ross said. “My main thing is I want to keep conditioning myself, keep getting faster. I’ve been working hard in the weight room. I always want to run with my pads forward, pads low, so I can get as many yards as I can.”
Painful memories can be a powerful motivator. So too can the allure of starting. With Wes Brown still rehabbing from shoulder and ankle surgeries, Ross is the clear-cut first-stringer. Racking up 119 yards on 19 carries and two rushing touchdowns Saturday, Ross hasn’t disappointed.
Once Brown went down last season and Ross stepped into a featured role, he finished the season with 390 yards and one touchdown in six games, including that season-long 71-yard burst. Most of Ross’s carries came on toss sweeps, allowing him to turn the corner and get downfield along the sideline.
Ross packed on the pounds this offseason, working on his strength to diversify the portfolio. His five-yard touchdown run was a power play, straight up the middle, while that 60-yarder was pure speed.
“What happens with Brandon, he’s one of those guys you can go inside and outside with,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “That’s one of things we’re able to do. If he can just stay healthy, that’s an added advantage. There’s some guys who might not be able to get to the outside. But you have a guy like Brandon who has the ability to run the sweep, stick his foot in the ground and get north or outrun people going to the sideline, or he gets a crease up the middle and can run through that. I’ve just been pleased with Brandon’s focus, because he’s better from a mental standpoint than he was during the fall.”
Ross shook off a lingering hamstring issue that sidelined him against William & Mary, Temple and Connecticut. He was a DNP-CD against Virginia, North Carolina State and Boston College, suiting up but never playing. Two 100-yard games in three starts to close the season, however, solidified his place as the top back come spring.
Still, Ross isn’t a mere place-holder for Brown, nor does he have the job locked up. True sophomore Albert Reid displayed similar burst Saturday, breaking off a 28-yard rushing touchdown against the first-team defense and a six-yard touchdown reception against the second team. Reid actually had a better day, finishing with 13 carries for 117 yards, including a 57-yard downhill speed showcase straight through the A gap.
“Bross is looking pretty good,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said, explaining that he’s nicknamed Ross “Bross.” “He’s taking off now. Coming off injury, and I think he got a lot stronger … I feel like we’ve got playmakers all around the board. Running backs, Albert Reid did a great job; Bross did a great job; then on the perimeter you’ve got some threats. We’ve got a lot of weapons. It’s looking good this season.”
Redshirt freshman Joe Riddle also impressed, displaying his agility and some surprising strength. Riddle played on just three series and carried 10 times for 42 yards and a nine-yard touchdown run, though he botched a handoff that linebacker Abner Logan recovered.
Edsall likes competition, especially at such a young position. With Justus Pickett gone, none of Maryland’s four running backs are older than sophomores. But competition means opportunity. For Ross, that means proving himself capable of carrying a full season’s load in the backfield.
“Yeah, there is competition,” Ross said. “We all feed off each other. I don’t know how they feel, but when I see them have a good run, I like to see that, because it makes me also want to break off a couple good plays. I think there’s stuff we all need to improve on. But really I’d like to identify my own weaknesses and try to improve on them. With runs, it’s making the right read and decision. The game is so fast, you don’t have time to make the wrong decision. That can be the difference between a touchdown and one-yard gain.”