The emotional rollercoaster Justyn Ross has been riding the last 18 months peaked Friday.
Clemson’s star receiver is officially back after having to wait a little longer than expected to return. COVID-19 protocols kept Ross out of the Tigers’ first six practices, but Ross finally made his camp debut during a morning practice at Jervey Meadows before joining the rest of the team for an afternoon dip in the lake nearby.
“It was a good day to come back,” Ross said with a grin.
Ross has plenty of reasons to smile.
It’s a much different emotional response than he was experiencing last March. When doctors discovered Ross had a congenital fusion in his spine after he took a hit during practice that left him with a tingling sensation, Ross was admittedly shaken. It was a potentially life-altering revelation for the former five-star recruit whose lifelong goal has always been to play in the NFL.
Early last summer, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced Ross would miss the entire 2020 season.
“I shed a tear just because of how it came off,” Ross said. “It came off like you won’t ever play again. This is something I’ve been working for my whole life since I was kid. Just having it took away from you like that, that’s real hard.”
Ross said there has never been a Plan B or Plan C when it comes to his future. He said he leaned on his mother, Charay Franklin, a military parent, for support during some of his darker days, but “I always had faith,” Ross said.
And when Ross first consulted with his doctor, Pittsburgh neurosurgeon David Okonkwo, that’s when he said he was hopeful about his chances to return to the football field. Okonkwo performed the correctional surgery last June, which included repairing a bulging disc.
“Just gave me a chance really,” Ross said.
After a follow-up appointment with Okonkwo in December, Ross was cleared to return to the team on a limited basis this spring. Ross then got the all-clear for contact from doctors, first Okonkwo and then Clemson’s medical staff, earlier this summer, but Swinney announced before the Tigers’ first practice of fall camp that Ross was in COVID-19 protocol that would keep him out the first week.
Following his first practice Friday, Ross said he feels the best he’s ever felt from a physical standpoint.
“I feel like the same old J-Ross,” he said.
As for that first hit since the one that led to his brief scare last spring, Ross knows it’s coming, though it won’t happen until next week at the earliest.
Even though Friday’s practice was Clemson’s second in full pads, Ross has to go through a five-day acclimatization period just like every other player. That means shells (helmet and shoulder pads) for the time being, but Ross said he doesn’t feel any apprehension about taking that first blow whenever it happens.
“I probably won’t just run straight into (the defender). I’m going to score,” Ross said through another grin. “But when it comes, I’m going to be ready.”
Ross has found the end zone a lot during his time with the Tigers. He caught 17 touchdown passes his first two years in the program. In all, the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder from Phenix City, Alabama, has hauled in 112 passes for 1,865 yards for an average of 16.6 yards per reception, making a case as the top receiver in college football and a first-round talent when he’s healthy.
That’s what Ross is entering his junior season, adding to a receiving corps that also has Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. back healthy, too. Primarily an outside receiver during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Ross expects to get some reps in the slot this fall as well and wants to show NFL teams that he’s a versatile playmaker among other things.
“Just that I’m that same old, explosive player,” Ross said. “Same old physical strong explosive player and that I can take a hit.”
Ross doesn’t anticipate having to wait long to show that. Despite the limited practice time he’s had since the spring, Ross said he fully expects to be ready to go in Clemson’s opener against Georgia on Sept. 4.
“If it’s up to me, I’m ready to play a full four-quarter game,” he said.
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