Opportunity knocks: Former Penguin carving niche in NFL
Nowadays, you can find Brandian Ross in a classroom on Youngstown State University’s campus as he finishes his psychology degree. But on Dec. 2, the former Penguins defensive back was in a much different venue.
It was just over two years since Ross last played for YSU, and he was finally receiving his long-awaited opportunity.
With the Oakland Raiders hosting the Cleveland Browns in week 13 of the NFL season, Ross — in his first year with Oakland — was forced into action because of an injury in the Raiders’ defensive backfield.
He entered in the middle of the second quarter at safety — a position he had only practiced at for the previous three weeks.
Ross finished the remainder of the game at safety, totaling three tackles and playing well enough to earn future playing time.
“I got my first tackle and was like, ‘OK, this is for real now,’” Ross said. “I think just getting continued snaps on defense it was like, ‘I’m here now.’”
Ross ended his first year in the NFL with a stat line of 14 games played, 17 total tackles and three assisted tackles. He received his first-career start in week 17 at San Diego, in which he recorded five tackles.
“It was a pretty good year — pretty successful, I think, for my career,” Ross said. “Hopefully, I can build off the last start and continue to start and get more opportunities to make plays.”
While studying at YSU this semester, Ross recently began training with Willie Danzer, YSU’s assistant strength and conditioning coach, to prepare for the next NFL season.
Danzer said Ross should eventually receive the opportunities that he craves for a simple reason: his work ethic.
“He knows that his athleticism gets him to the NFL, but the reason he succeeds in the NFL is because he’s intelligent,” Danzer said. “He understands that this is part of his job.
He’s got to train harder than everybody else if he wants to be better than everyone else. He puts in the time, and his nutrition’s on point.”
From 2007 to 2010, Ross was a four-year letter-winning cornerback for YSU. For his career, he had 223 total tackles, seven interceptions, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
However, the Raiders asked Ross to expand his abilities and play multiple defensive back positions. For this reason, Ross is focused on increasing his muscle size and weight.
“I need to get bigger — to about 205 pounds — so if I do have to play safety, I’m at a comfortable weight,” he said.
Danzer said that goal shouldn’t be difficult for Ross to attain.
“He’s got the unique ability that by doing things, he can put weight on really simply,” he said. “We’re still pushing the envelope of his athleticism, too.”
Ross didn’t always have an exceptional work ethic. He learned the importance of taking care of his body during his brief time with the Green Bay Packers, who signed Ross as an undrafted free agent in 2011.
In Green Bay, he studied under cornerback Charles Woodson, an eight-time Pro Bowler and former AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“Valuable learning experience,” Ross said. “That’s what’s really important — taking care of your body and being prepared for the next week, or you’re not going to play.”
Ross also made another valuable connection while with the Packers.
It was with Reggie McKenzie, the director of player personnel for the Packers during Ross’ time in Green Bay.
McKenzie became Oakland’s general manager prior to the 2012 season and subsequently signed Ross to the Raiders. “I think he has a lot of faith in my abilities and what I’m capable of doing on the field,” Ross said of McKenzie. “I’m just hoping that he has enough faith in me and realizes my potential.”
When it comes to Ross’ potential, Danzer said he believes the sky is the limit.
“I’ve never seen anybody with my own two eyes that has the physical gifts that he does,” Danzer said. “He’s incredibly fast. He’s deceptively strong and explosive. I honestly think that if he gets in the right system and he gets a fair shake, he can be really, really good.”