Nov. 15, 2013
By Phil LaBella
Lafayette Sports Information Director
Everyone who has seen Mark Ross play remembers their favorite catch: a seemingly impossible one-hander on the sideline, a grab across the middle in traffic when you knew he was going to get popped or his signature receptive moments with a defender draped on his back, fighting him off and scoring a touchdown.
Those catches have led to touchdowns, a school-record 25 of them to be exact. That number is the seventh best mark in the nearly 30 years of the Patriot League. It's one of many records that really only tell part of the story about a player whom teammates describe as "humble, easy going and confident."
"He's just a playmaker. Mark knows how to use his weight and just really positions himself to make plays," said fellow wideout Mike Duncan. "You see it so many times. He's running right next to a corner that has perfect coverage on him and he just comes up with the ball."
"He's very conscientious and he has the will to get better at the things he wasn't good at before. He finds a way to do it," said Lafayette offensive coordinator Mickey Fein. "Mark's definitely learned how to become a better route runner and how to use his body while the ball in is the air."
Ross came out of Hopewell High School in western Pennsylvania, a renowned high school hotbed. But, the Hopewell program wasn't exactly a showcase for the passing game.
"We were strictly a run-only offense," Ross said of his high school career. "We had the No. 4 overall recruit in the nation in Rushel Shell. He was one of the best backs in the country," Ross said. "Even without him we were a run-only offense. We would throw the ball to me on third down, throw the fade ball, and sometimes in the red zone throw it up to me."
With Shell (recruited by Alabama, signed at Pittsburgh and has since transferred to West Virginia) running the ball, there weren't a lot of passes to be thrown. Ross made the most of his limited opportunities, however, catching 63 balls for 1,400 yards and 19 touchdowns during his prep career on his way to all-state honorable mention honors and all-conference recognition.
It wasn't until late in the recruiting process that Lafayette came knocking and defensive backs coach Doug McFadden was able to see Ross' high school efforts in person. After seeing one game, McFadden knew that Ross needed to be part of the Leopards' recruiting class.
"Mark made this one-handed catch in stride on an icy field during one of his games and that really caught my attention," McFadden recalled of Ross who was seriously considering other Patriot League schools. "When I met Mark, I told him that I didn't want to play against him for four years, so we wanted to sign him."
Ross made a mid-week visit to campus and knew that the College Hill environment was where he wanted to spend his college career.
"I was really impressed by the campus, the facilities and the academics," Ross said. "As soon as I got here, I felt at home. That's the best way I can describe it. When I left here, coach Fein called me and said we're going to find a way to get you to come here."
The start of his career in his freshman year was not what Ross had hoped for in terms of football.
"When I came here, I had a little chip on my shoulder because I thought I could have been recruited at the FBS level," Ross said. "Coming here, my goal was just to get playing time my freshman year, and I didn't get that. I didn't even make the travel team."
"It was definitely tough my freshman year because I came in and Mark Layton was a preseason All-American and Mitch Bennett was a two or three-year starter. Kyle Hayes was a great player and there were all of these great receivers with veteran experience that I didn't have. I knew it would be tough to even make the travel team. Not really playing for a year and sitting back and learning from the older guys that had experience, I think I learned a lot from them."
His time was coming. The coaching staff was already taking notice during that rookie campaign.
"We noticed him his freshman year playing on the scout team," McFadden said. "He was starting to make the catches that we see all of the time now."
"Coming into my sophomore spring my goal again was just to play," Ross recalled. "When I eventually got playing time, my next goal was to score a touchdown. My goals just kept building after that and eventually I wanted to become the No. 1 receiver."
It didn't take him long to achieve those initial goals, reeling in a 37-yard touchdown pass just before halftime at Penn on Sept. 17, 2011. That game at historic Franklin Field proved to be a breakout contest. He later added a 73-yard TD catch, the Leopards' longest play from scrimmage that season to help cap a 37-12 win.
"His sophomore year against Penn, he just exploded in that game. That was the game that kind of got everything going for Mark," Fein said. "We always knew he was going to do that, but that game he had that long touchdown and we knew we had something special. He really hasn't looked back since."
With 126 yards receiving and two touchdowns that night in Philadelphia, Ross began to pile up numbers. To date, he's amassed 13 career games with 100 or more receiving yards and was the first Leopard player since John Weyrauch '04 to have four or more 100-yard receiving games (9/29/12-10/20/12) in a row.
The game that kicked off that streak was a 13-catch performance at Robert Morris on Sept. 29, 2012 in front of a hometown crowd in Moon Township, Pa. near Ross' hometown. Ross made 13 grabs to tie a Lafayette single-game record in front of a group of more than 150 friends and family, a cohort that has been instrumental in his success.
"Playing at Robert Morris was one of the most exciting experiences I've had here at Lafayette. That was an amazing experience for me because of the great support by my family and friends. I was really thankful."
"The support I have had from family and friends for the past four years has been amazing and I can't thank them enough," Ross said. "My parents make a five-hour trip every weekend and drive back that same night to come support me, and I'm thankful for that. My brothers make it to games when they can and watch all of my games on TV. My brother Kurt sends me songs to listen to before every game, and my brother Steve might be Lafayette's number one fan."
Ross's junior season marked one of the top performances by a Lafayette receiver in a decade, garnering him All-Patriot League First-Team honors. He corralled 75 balls for 1,030 yards and 10 touchdowns, marks that ranked him second, third and fourth, respectively, in a season. His 19 career touchdowns had already tied him for the career lead with a full season remaining.
It was clear that Ross, if healthy in his senior season, would eclipse Weyrauch's career receiving numbers of 162 catches for 2,406 yards. What was also clear was that catching an opponent by surprise was no longer possible because of his productivity the previous two campaigns. But, the added scrutiny and the double teams have not changed his approach.
"Since my sophomore year of high school, I've never really changed what I've done. I've always been the same type of player - just a possession receiver that is going to try to make a big play," Ross said. "I've developed better techniques to get off the ball and run my routes. Overall, my style of play hasn't changed but my techniques have improved."
Entering the 2013 season, Ross needed 39 catches for 674 yards to become the all-time receiving leader. Like Weyrauch, he didn't have the benefit of producing numbers in his freshman year. Unlike Weyrauch, whose full-time quarterback was Lafayette's career passing leader Marko Glavic, Ross hasn't had that consistency of a one-on-one quarterback connection.
Rather, Ross has caught balls from six different signal callers, Marc Quilling, Ryan O'Neil, Andrew Shoop and Zach Zweizig in previous seasons and Zweizig, Andrew Dzurik and Drew Reed all in 2013. Ross has rolled with the QB changes.
"I never really adapt my game. I always play my style of football, but with different quarterbacks you just have a different connection," Ross said. "I play my game and eventually you and your quarterback will get on the same page."
After the last three starts, it looks as if Reed, a freshman, will be the starting signal caller going forward in 2013. Reed's numbers, in a limited sample size have been impressive, completing 81 percent (75-of-93) of his attempts for 1064 yards with 13 touchdowns. His first two starts resulted in 40 or more points in consecutive games for the first time since 2006.
With Reed cemented in that role, Ross has looked to aid in Reed's development in the only way a receiver can.
"We've stayed after practice to throw a little bit to continue to develop that trust. As a freshman, he doesn't want to make mistakes. With my style of play, of going up and getting the ball, sometimes it's hard to make that risky throw, but the more we keep working at it you develop that trust," Ross explained. "He's going to put the ball where I need to get it and that I'm going to make that play. He needs to trust that I'm not going to let anything bad happen."
Ross' sentiments have proved true in the three games that Reed has played. Reed has thrown just one interception in two-plus outings after turnovers hampered the Leopards early in 2013.
Perhaps it is most appropriate that Reed's proverbial "coming out party" coincided with Ross' record-breaking day at Holy Cross on Oct. 26. The Leopards were returning to Patriot League play after a pair of losses to Ivy League foes, Harvard and Princeton. Individually, Ross needed two catches and 149 yards to become the sole leader in career receptions and career receiving yards.
The Leopards didn't disappoint, improving to 2-0 in Patriot League play with a 41-23 win over the Crusaders. Ross finished the day with eight catches for 151 yards and three touchdowns. Reed wasn't so bad either, completing 21-of-22, including 20 straight completions, for 283 yards and five touchdowns.
"There can be three guys on him, but give him a chance and he's going to make the play for you," Reed said at the team's Tuesday media gathering following the Holy Cross win. "You just look at his track record and you see the highlights he's made over the years. He's a great guy to have. He makes my job a lot easier."
Following the Holy Cross performance, Ross held all of the career receiving records and now stands at 180 catches, 2,538 yards and 25 touchdowns.
"I never thought I would be at this point today," Ross said. "It was never my initial goal. My goal was just to do whatever I could to help the team win."
The team has been winning, improving to 3-1 in Patriot League play. The Leopards have two games remaining, one of which (Lehigh) figures in the Patriot League title run.
"I'm excited about the opportunity we have in front of us, and we need to seize that opportunity. Playing for the Patriot League title has been a dream and a goal that this team has set forth since we arrived at Lafayette. Now we need to make that dream a reality because no one is just going to hand us the title. We have to earn it," Ross said. "After four years of hard work, there is nothing this senior class and nothing this football team wants more than to be able to graduate from Lafayette and be able to say we were Patriot League champions."
With graduation comes the real world, and Ross seems to be well-suited for that challenge as well based on his academic track record. The Economics major maintains a 3.63 grade-point average and has been singled out for Capital One Academic All-District II honors, an award that pits his academic and athletic accomplishments against those of other regional schools at the FCS and FBS level.
Ross has been honored by the FCS Athletic Directors' Association as an Academic All-Star and twice has achieved Academic All-Patriot League status as voted on by the league's sports information directors.
Like all seniors, Ross faces that question of what the future holds, and he is weighing options that include professional football and offers to work in finance.
"After the season is over, I'll see where the situation with playing professionally stands and if that's a possibility, then I hope to achieve that goal. If not, then I'll look for a job in the finance industry," Ross said. "Growing up as a little kid, everybody's dream is to play in the NFL. I don't want to miss out if there's a chance."