ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- James Ross III didn’t expect to play much the first game last season. Special teams, sure, but on the actual defense against Alabama, the linebacker’s head was stuck in high school.
So imagine his surprise when his coaches turned to him during Michigan’s season-opener last season and told him he was going in.
This was his introduction to college football, complete with moments that still stick out almost a year later as he moves from a situational role player to a full-time starter on Michigan’s defense.
“I’m on the sideline and the coaches tell me to get in,” Ross III said. “I’m like, ‘OK.’ I just look around the stadium and it’s packed. Has the big old jumbo screen going on. Ahh, it was, I don’t know.
“That offensive line was a pretty big deal, too. It’s real.”
Ross III, an undersized linebacker at 5-foot-11, already had this experience down. A month earlier at the start of fall camp, he looked at Michigan’s offense and saw offensive linemen all standing 6-foot-3 or bigger and realized he wasn’t playing in Michigan’s Catholic League anymore.
Plus, his knowledge of what defenses Greg Mattison wanted to run was minimal and it ended up being somewhat surprising Ross III played much at all. He was able to mask his lack of understanding by his instincts. He didn’t know all the plays, but he listened to what former Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens recited in the huddle, repeated it as if he knew what he was doing and then would go and try to make a play.
By the end of the season, Ross III said he knew about 75 percent of what Michigan was doing.
He had 36 tackles, a half-sack and 2.5 tackles for loss last season. He also started two games when Desmond Morgan was injured and made enough of an impact that the coaches moved Morgan to middle linebacker this spring to make sure Ross III played more this fall. Beyond that, Michigan’s coaching staff is pressuring him to be more active than last season and make sure he understands things better.
“He has, I think, pretty good instincts,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “… I thought, we thought, that there’s more we could get out of him so we’re putting a lot of that pressure, a lot of the challenge to him to do a little better job getting off blocks and there’s times when you don’t need to take on the block.
“So just making the football itself the issue.”
Last season it wasn’t. There were playbook and communication issues and there was the adjustment to college football in general. Thus far this fall, the adjustments have been more subtle.
Instead of understanding the concept of the plays, he has focused on making sure his alignment is correct. Instead of relying on his teammates to announce and break down the play, he is starting to grasp everything on his own.
He’s even learning to use his size -- strong but short -- to his advantage.
“Being able to read a little better,” Ross III said. “Just like it’s difficult looking at a smaller running back, you can’t really see him so you can get lost a little bit in the shuffle. But those guys, we are shuffling downhill and trying to maintain our gaps so we aren’t shuffling around them.
“We have to go through them.”
Doing that isn’t an issue for Ross. He has always been a big hitter and strong for his size. His body, which didn’t look like a typical freshman when he entered camp a year ago, has continued to improve.
Now everything else is catching up.