On 2nd and 23 in the third quarter Saturday against Kansas, running back Julian Ross ran like the hometown kid who got away.
Shedding tacklers and speeding to daylight, Ross — from Kansas City, Missouri, 45 minutes from the Jayhawks’ campus — broke off a 23-yard run.
Through three games, he has a 4.2 yard-per-rush average and three touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who received only one Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) offer.
Ross, a freshman who has more touchdowns than his veteran counterparts and had to change his number because he’s playing unexpectedly on special teams, adds a welcomed third dimension to the Bobcats’ running game.
Listed at 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds, Ross is lighter than Ohio’s other rotation runners: redshirt junior A.J. Ouellette (205 pounds) and redshirt senior Dorian Brown (208 pounds).
“I keep hearing I’m not really a power back, I’m not really a speed back,” Ross said. “I try to be right in the middle … Because you want speed in some situations, but you need power too.”
Ross nearly missed his chance to showcase his talent at the NCAA’s highest level. Entering his senior year at Staley High School in 2016, he received his first scholarship offer — Southeast Missouri State, from the Football Championship Series (FCS).
“He’s one of the most highly decorated guys I’ve ever recruited,” said Tim Albin, who coaches Ohio’s running backs in addition to his offensive coordinator duties.
By the end of Ross’ senior season, one in which he rushed for more than 2,250 yards and was named the top player across all classes in metro Kansas City, his plan was to play for Missouri State.
Ohio called in the winter and changed those plans.
“It was very stressful,” Ross said of awaiting an FBS offer. “But everything came in. God helped me. It all came in late, but he had a plan for me and I ended up here, at an amazing place I’m happy at.”
Christianity is a pillar in Ross’ life. He has three bibles in his room that he reads “here and there,” plus a pile of bible quotes sent from his high school Young Life leader.
“I know (God is) always gonna be with me,” he said. “Even if you feel like you’re on your own, you never are.”
Two weekends ago, Ross was on his own in the backfield in the second half against Purdue. The Bobcats had gained no traction in the first half with Ouellette or Brown, so they turned to Ross, who paced the group with 55 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
“You have to remind yourself sometimes that he’s a true freshman,” quarterback Nathan Rourke said after the game.
Having Ross as a third man in the running back rotation has allowed Ohio to limit its wear and tear on the group collectively. By Albin’s estimate, Ouellette has played 65 snaps this season, while Brown has played 60 and Ross has had 55.
Even in games in which Ross takes the backseat to his more experienced teammates, he has the ability to use his speed (as a four-year letter winner in track and field at Staley) for a quick burst when called upon off the bench.
Ross, just 18, has time to grow, develop and add size. Ohio is fortunate no other FBS school snapped him up — even if the reason why remains unclear.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Albin said. “Ask KU.”