His agent gave him a splashy nickname: “The Rocket Rashad.”
And for a second straight week, free agent Rashad Ross backed that claim when it mattered most, grabbing a 43-yard reception and returning a kickoff 42 yards in Washington’s preseason victory Monday night over Cleveland.
But for all the velocity he brings to the field, the 6-foot, 181-pound Rocket Rashad is as grounded as they come, well aware he faces long odds of surviving the cuts in store at one of the deepest positions on the Redskins’ roster.
It’s unclear whether Coach Jay Gruden will keep six or seven wide receivers. But at least six are ahead of Ross on the depth chart: Pierre Garcon, whose 113 catches led the league last season; DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts, the high-profile free agent acquisitions; sure-handed veteran Santana Moss; speedy Aldrick Robinson; and polished rookie Ryan Grant.
“I feel like my best chance of making the roster is through special teams,” said Ross, 24, who spent time at Tennessee and Kansas City last season. “Andre [Roberts] is the number one returner right now. My goal is just to showcase what I can do on the return game and let them choose who they want.”
A native of Vallejo, Calif., Ross has run into road blocks since he was a teenager. But if he has one move down pat, it’s finding a way around the obstacles in his path.
A two-sport athlete at Vallejo High, he didn’t have the grades to satisfy Division I football recruiters. So he enrolled at Butte College, a community college about three hours north of San Francisco that’s known for good football and one particularly famous alum, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who played one season for the Roadrunners before transferring to California.
Butte was ideal for Ross, says Michael Wilson, his high school football and track coach, for two reasons: It got him out of an environment where few of his peers aspired to college, and it got him into a quality football program run by dedicated coaches.
“They really take care of their kids,” Wilson said of Butte in a telephone interview. “I remember one night I was talking to him on the phone, and he had to get off because the coach was coming to check his English paper. I thought that was outstanding.”
After two seasons at Butte, Ross transferred to Arizona State, where he was welcomed onto the football and track teams. He won a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation 200-meter indoor track championship. And he finished with 55 catches for 864 yards, including seven touchdowns, and ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns.
He capped his college career with a three-touchdown performance in Arizona State’s 62-28 thrashing of Navy in the 2012 Fight Hunger Bowl, which was contested in San Francisco, about 30 minutes from his home. And his statistics would likely have been gaudier had he not been pulled early in the third quarter.
“I had all my family there — my mom, my dad, my cousins,” Ross recalled. “Everybody was there. Every time I go home and play, I have a good game.”
Ross held out hope of getting drafted, but he refused to give up when his name wasn’t called.
Thus began the itinerant life he has led since, signed as a free agent by Tennessee in May 2013 and waived three months later, signed to Kansas City’s practice squad in November 2013 and waived six months later, then picked up by the Redskins on May 23.
It has been humbling at times, buried on a wide-receiver depth chart that’s stocked with speed, talent and experience. Before he could even articulate any frustration over the few reps he was getting in practice, his new teammates took him aside.
“That’s when D-Jack came to me,” Ross said, referring to DeSean Jackson. “And not just him, but Santana and Pierre. They said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.’ ”
The trio has become Ross’s personal cheering section.
“He’s making big plays every time he gets the ball,” Garcon said Thursday. “He’s catching the ball deep, and he’s doing good on returns, too.”
They tweet his successes, giving shout-outs to @therocketrashad. And they have a private word when he makes the rare misstep.
Says Ross: “If I drop a ball, which I rarely do, D-Jack comes to me and gets on like he’s an older brother: ‘You can’t be doing that! You only get a couple opportunities. You gotta make the best of ’em!’ ”
Gruden has taken note.
“He’s a flashy player, and he’s one of those guys who’s taken advantage of his reps,” Gruden said Thursday while Ross stayed late on the practice field, running routes and catching balls from backup Colt McCoy. “When the ball’s in the air, he has gone and gotten two long ones. That’s good to see. Kickoffs, he’s broken a couple.”
Moreover, Ross has done everything coaches have asked, Gruden added.
All of that may earn Ross his first spot on a 53-man NFL roster. Or it may relegate him to the handful of players who end up caught in a numbers game and cut with a heavy heart.
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