John Ross is a problem.
For opposing teams, certainly. The Washington Huskies’ junior is one of the fastest players in the country, a weapon both as a receiver and kick returner, evidenced by the three scores he tallied in the first half of UW’s season-opening blowout of Rutgers.
But returning a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown in his first game of the season might not come without consequence for his own team. Ross now has four total kick-return touchdowns in his career, most in UW history. It would be understandable if UW’s future opponents — say, Idaho, which visits Seattle for a 2 p.m. Saturday game — might be reluctant to kick the ball to Ross.
As UW color analyst Damon Huard remarked after Ross’ most recent kick-return score: “Why on God’s earth would they kick him the ball?”
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Petersen said on Monday that he “for sure” believes that Ross will get more chances to return kickoffs this season, and he’s right — it’s not feasible to simply gift the opponent quality field position after every single kickoff just because their returner is good enough to take it to the house. Pac-12 teams have good athletes, too, and aren’t likely to cower before Ross’ abilities.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll kick it to him every time. Opponents are likely to get creative in an attempt to avoid Ross, like Rutgers did on its second kickoff of Saturday’s game. That one was popped higher into the air — a sky kick — and fielded by redshirt freshman Austin Joyner at UW’s 16-yard line. He returned it 12 yards.
Those plays, Petersen said, are difficult to practice.
“When a guy is kicking away and they sky kick, those are always things that take a lot of time, effort and energy to get good at,” Petersen said Thursday. “To field it, to not just raise the white flag, so to speak, where it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re good with the ball there.’ Because you are getting good field position, but we’d like to try to be aggressive as well, so we spend a lot of time on the kicking game in all phases, and that one as well.”
Asked Wednesday whether he thinks opponents might stop kicking to him, Ross replied: “We do think that, but we’ll just be ready for whatever they do.”
If you haven’t noticed, the Huskies don’t play a rigorous nonconference schedule this season. After rolling Rutgers, they were installed this week as 37-point favorites over Idaho, and next week will host Portland State, a Big Sky opponent.
Next season’s schedule isn’t any more enticing, with a road trip to Rutgers followed by home games against Montana and Fresno State. In 2018, the Huskies host North Dakota, Nevada and BYU, and in 2019 they host Eastern Washington and Hawaii before playing at BYU.
The next Power Five opponent to come to Seattle will be Michigan — on Sept. 5, 2020.
Asked Thursday about his ideal nonconference slate, Petersen was unsurprisingly diplomatic.
“I think that we want to play people that our fans get excited about,” Petersen said. “There’s three of those every year. The administration is always working hard on that. People change their minds, people cancel games, people can’t do it. There’s only a handful that have open dates, so we want to play a competitive schedule that gets us ready to play in the Pac-12.”
UW drew 58,640 fans last week for its season opener. Petersen was asked whether he would rather be preparing for a big-name opponent this week — one that would perhaps draw a bigger crowd.
His response: “I’d rather be playing Idaho in two days. That’s who’s on our schedule, that’s who we play. … All that other stuff, that’s for the administration to figure out. We’re playing who’s in front of us.”