- Monday's national title game will be dominated by freshmen and sophomores—including one Clemson receiver who had to be forced to stick with football, only to blossom into the Tigers' breakout playoff weapon. Now Justyn Ross understands his ceiling.
In the summer of 2014, 13-year-old Justyn Ross tried to weasel his way out of playing football. A soon-to-be high school freshman, Justyn refused to spend the entire summer training to play with the varsity, where coaches moved him because of his insane athletic ability. He missed his friends, all of whom were on the junior varsity squad, and he didn’t like football anyway—he was a basketball guy, with dreams of playing in college.
“He quit every day,” says Charay Franklin, Ross’s mother.
No one wanted Ross to quit football. Franklin even confiscated his cell phone to encourage him to rejoin the team, and his position coach at Central (Ala.) High School, hell-bent on convincing him to return, visited Ross’s home with a recruiting pitch. His head coach even prevented Ross from leaving his office until he changed his mind. Jamey DuBose stood in front of his office door, arms folded, glaring at the kid slumped in a chair. “God gave him special talents. I couldn’t let him walk away,” DuBose recalls. “That was my duty that day to stand in front of that door. I thought then that a lot of fans around the world are going to one day be knowing Justyn Ross.”
That day is already here. On Friday, Ross will arrive in northern California with the Clemson football team, and on Monday, he’ll compete in the College Football Playoff National Championship against his home-state school, Alabama. Those people who encouraged him so passionately to continue in the sport will be watching him on the grandest of stages, his coaches from their couches and his mother from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Franklin chokes up when retelling the story of the time her son nearly quit and how, four years later, he’s an essential piece, as a true freshman, to a team 60 minutes away from a national title. “He has a purpose on this Earth to make a difference and name for himself,” Franklin says.
In the 30–3 semifinal win over Notre Dame last week, Ross recorded career highs in catches (six), receiving yards (148) and touchdowns (two), set a Clemson bowl record with 137 first-half yards and increased his yards-per-catch to 21.2, fifth-best in the FBS. One-third of his 40 receptions this year went for at least 25 yards, and all but three of his eight touchdowns went for more than 50 yards. Clemson’s Cotton Bowl romp doubled as a coming-out party for a kid whose electric big-play ability had been previously overshadowed nationally.
After all, he’s on a team with so many other young studs. There’s sophomore running back Travis Etienne, who finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting. There’s Trevor Lawrence, the tall, blond true freshman who is a win away from being just the second first-year quarterback to lead his team to a national championship as the starter. And there’s the statistical leader of Ross’s own position group, sophomore Tee Higgins, whose acrobatic catches have had NFL scouts buzzing. In fact, both national title participants utilized show-stopping underclassmen at key skill positions to get here. Alabama has its Heisman runner-up sophomore quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, and a bevy of athletic, five-star freaks at receiver: sophomores Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs and freshman Jaylen Waddle.
In all, freshmen and sophomores are responsible for about 75% of Clemson’s offensive yards and touchdowns and about 70% of Alabama’s. A sport-wide youth movement leaving younger players in control of college football’s best teams is arriving at its pinnacle event. These two juggernaut programs have reached the championship game with teenagers carrying the load offensively, and of them all, maybe the most unheralded is the 6'4", 210-pound wideout who grew up in Alabama, plays for Clemson and nearly quit the game altogether. “I just lost the love for it,” Ross recalls. “My coaches kept me around, and I came back to my senses. They saw something special. And they were right.”
The last line seems boastful. It is not. Ross is a quiet kid who was even amazed last weekend at his own performance against Notre Dame. “I’m still shocked,” he told reporters in a small gathering outside of Clemson’s locker room Saturday night. DuBose was not surprised. Leading up to the semifinal, Clemson coaches had tipped him off. They had big plans for Ross, they told him, and they were expecting big things. “They saw something in coverage,” DuBose says. At least a few times, they aligned Ross in the slot, from which he scored that 42-yard touchdown. “When I saw him in the slot, I remembered his recruiting,” says DuBose, a longtime Alabama prep coach who worked under Bill Clark at Prattville High School long before Clark led the UAB football program’s resurrection. “That’s one thing college coaches talked about was his route running was so precise and good that they could play him both inside and outside.”
Ross’s high school days were full of so many brilliant catches that one of them landed on SportsCenter’s Top 10 and another made “You Got Mossed”, Randy Moss’s weekly segment on ESPN’s Monday Night Football pregame show that features spectacular plays from receivers at all levels. As a senior at Central, every major recruiting service ranked Ross as a top-15 receiver in the nation, and he was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the state of Alabama. His hometown of Phenix City is just 30 miles east of Auburn, so close to the Georgia-Alabama line that the city of 30,000 is the only one in Alabama that operates on Eastern Time.
How Clemson pulled him from the clutches of either side of the Iron Bowl is a recruiting steal that had people back home miffed. “It was a battle. They didn’t give up without a fight,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “That was all [co-OC] Jeff Scott and [defensive line coach] Todd Bates.” He was the first top-ranked player from the state not to sign with Alabama since Jameis Winston chose Florida State in 2012. “We had a lot of mad people,” says Franklin. Most of them have moved past it now, she says, and she’s even received positive texts from a few locals this week. We’re Alabama fans, but we’re going to cheer for Justyn!
For her son, the Alabama connections run deep. Ross idolizes former Crimson Tide wideout Julio Jones, and one of his best friends and ex-high school teammates, Markail Benton, is a sophomore reserve linebacker at Alabama. “There’s going to be a lot of emotions on the field in Cali, but gotta go out there and ball,” Ross says. Ross is close enough to Benton that he refers to him as his brother. The two reunited this December while back home for the holiday break. Naturally, they talked trash to one another, DuBose says, each predicting even before the semifinals that they’d meet the other in the title game. Benton’s recruiting efforts to get Ross to Tuscaloosa failed, as did the ones from the head man himself. “We thought he was one of the best players in Alabama a year ago and certainly recruited him with as much enthusiasm as possible,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We just came up short. It’s no surprise to me that he’s having an outstanding year, and we’d love to have him here, but we’ve got to try to prepare to play against him.”
Ross says he chose Clemson because of the coaching staff stability, its receiver-friendly offense and that feeling of “home” he and his mother felt on the trip there last November. The fact that he’s playing against Alabama in his very first year for all the marbles has his mom again emotional. “It’s a lot. I’m so happy that ... I can’t ... it’s a different feeling to have, to see your son doing such amazing things at a young age,” she says. “You would never think, ‘That’s my son doing these things.’ None of this ever crossed my mind, that this is where we’d be right now.”
It’s been a journey to this point. Franklin had her son as a sophomore in high school at the age of 16. Two years later, she enlisted in the Navy, and two months later, the attacks of September 11 left nearly 3,000 people dead and activated America’s military. Within a few weeks, Franklin found herself about 100 miles off the coast of Iraq while stationed on the USS John F. Kennedy. That was her first of three one-year deployments sprinkled throughout her son’s life. She’s been stationed in Dubai and Barcelona, and she most recently spent a year in Kuwait as a truck dispatcher with the Alabama National Guard.
She missed Ross’s entire junior year of high school while in Kuwait. The deployments, along with the months of training trips, grow more difficult as Ross gets older. Ross describes his mother’s last departure, and his eyes well. “I was just getting to my recruiting stage, and she wasn’t there to experience it,” he says. She wasn’t completely absent. While on a visit to Clemson with his high school coach, Ross used FaceTime to communicate with his mother. Her son wasn’t the only one in the picture. “Coach Swinney was walking by and joking and having a good time,” DuBose remembers. “I think she saw how relaxed Ross was.” Franklin returned home a few weeks later, surprising her son at 4 a.m. on Mother’s Day morning. “I go out there and play for her,” Ross says.
While Franklin was overseas or at training, her mother, Annetta, cared for Ross. She’s the one who introduced him to football when he was four. Ten years later, Ross became the first true freshman to ever play for the varsity in DuBose’s 25 years as a high school coach. The move up from junior varsity nearly chased him away from the sport. He quit football so many times that summer his mom has lost track. She told coaches to handle her stubborn son, and they did, with DuBose’s informal detention sealing the deal. “We stayed in my office hour or hour and a half,” DuBose recalls. “I stood in front of the door. ‘You’re not leaving. I’ll never let you quit. They’ll fire me before you quit.’ We stayed in there and we kept talking. I got him back out [for football].
“He’s something totally different than anything I’ve ever seen. There is nothing on a football field he can’t do. He’s still not at his full potential. The nation will see that sooner or later.”
Clemson’s coaches hope it is the former. The Tigers will need all of their skillful underclassmen to crack Nick Saban’s defense, especially the one who’s often overlooked, the guy who coaches barred the door to keep in the game, the son of a military mother. They’ll need Justyn Ross. “We talk about Trevor [Lawrence] in these big stages, but it’s the same for Justyn Ross,” says Brandon Streeter, Clemson’s quarterback coach. “They are true freshmen. They are making big plays that are game-changing plays. He does it with ease. He’s special. I mean special.”