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Maryland running back Brandon Ross is having the best season of his career

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The senior is on pace for career highs in every major category. What's behind his growth?

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Maryland football team's offense needs a better passing game in order to really tick. That much has been clear for most of Randy Edsall's tenure of head coach, and it was laid most plain last Saturday. That's because Maryland went up against what had rated as the best rushing defense in the country so far this season, gashed it for for a 6-yard per-carry average ... and only came away with six points in 60 minutes.

For Maryland, that's the tough thing. But how about the other thing? Because Maryland's running backs have actually done quite well, and senior Brandon Ross is the man at the forefront. Last Saturday, he weaved through West Virginia's elite defense for 130 yards on just 15 carries, and his day would've looked much better than that if not for an unfortunate but meaningless fumble at the end of a would-be 55-yard touchdown run. It was the continuation of an exciting trend for Ross.

Brandon Ross's Career Rush Stats
Year G Att Yds Avg TD
2012 6 85 390 4.6 1
2013 12 166 776 4.7 4
2014 13 85 419 4.9 4
2015 4 59 358 6.1 2

Ross's tiny year-over-year gains in rushing average have become a huge jump. He's arguably already been more productive than he was as either a freshman or junior, and he's set to cruise to the best individual season of his career.

The advanced numbers like Ross, too. Research from SB Nation's Bill Connelly tells us that the first 5 yards of a standard college running play are the responsibility of a team's linemen, while the next few yards are shared between the ball-carrier and the line before the running back shoulders the full load for the play's outcome. Defenses have pushed back better against Maryland's offensive line with Ross in the backfield than either Wes Brown or Ty Johnson.

Player Pos. Ht, Wt Year Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles
(Lost)
Brandon Ross RB 5'10, 210 SR 61 356 2 5.8 7.3 36.1% 0 (0)
Wes Brown RB 6'0, 210 JR 26 143 1 5.5 4.2 42.3% 0 (0)
Ty Johnson RB 5'10, 184 FR 24 133 1 5.5 4.4 41.7% 0 (0)
Perry Hills QB 6'2, 210 JR 11 119 0 10.8 8.3 63.6% 0 (0)
Caleb Rowe QB 6'3, 220 JR 8 41 0 5.1 4.0 50.0% 3 (0)
Levern Jacobs WR 5'11, 188 JR 1 -1 0 -1.0 0.0 0.0% 0 (0)
NOTE: Quarterback run totals above do not include sacks (which are counted toward pass averages below) or kneeldowns.

Ross's opportunity rate – the frequency with which he gets the chance to carry the ball more than 5 yards – is a team-low 36 percent. That's a shame, because his highlight yardage – what he earns once he's past 5 yards – is a terrific 7.3-yard average. He's doing 6 yards per rush even though his linemen haven't been able to get much push in front of him. In an offense that averages that same amount per passing attempt (at 109th in the nation), Ross's contributions can't be overstated.

"He's reading the defensive stuff, the blocking schemes a little better, which allows him to anticipate where the holes may occur," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "He's done a good job of breaking some tackles as well."

Ross also emphasized the mental part of the game as important to his growth.

"One of the things I've done well is really just trying to become a student of the game, like he said," Ross said. "Not just learn the whole offense, but learn the defenses we've got play, angles they're trying to attack us and where we can attack them."

One of center Evan Mulrooney's biggest jobs on the Maryland offensive line is to make space for Ross. On Wednesday, asked for his thoughts on Ross's gains this season, Mulrooney gave a response worth quoting in full:

"First and foremost, I think you have to look at the fact that he's from the great state of Delaware, and most of his success comes based on that fact alone. And I think there's honestly – I'm joking – there's some truth to that. Because me and him are from the same area, and when you're from a small state that literally no one in the whole world respects, you kind of have a chip on your shoulder. You're playing in a big-time environment here, a big conference, and Brandon, ever since he got here, he's just worked his butt off, and I've been so impressed with him. I've been so proud of him. I trained with him in high school; I knew him all through high school, and it's just cool to see him blossom into the beautiful flower of a running back that he's become. I'm proud to call him a teammate, proud to call him a friend."

It seems like Ross might have the respect of his line.

What remains to be seen is what happens to Ross's production once Big Ten play starts. Michigan will sound that horn on Saturday night, when the Wolverines and their top-10 national defense descend on Byrd Stadium. Over the few weeks after that come Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. That's a lot of superb collegiate defense on Ross's plate – but then, again, so was West Virginia, where Ross managed to find green in an otherwise hopeless place. Big Ten teams weren't kind to Maryland's runners last year, and Maryland has to turn the tables.

"There's a different mentality," Ross said. "We spent all spring and all camp really trying to get our run game going, doing inside run drills – just the o-line, running backs and the front seven of the defense. All that stuff we've worked in the past is pretty much building up to now, so I think it'll do us well."

Maryland has a brutal slog in front of it. By the week, Michigan looks more and more like a top-flight team. Once that's over, Maryland won't play anything less than a top-40 team for almost two months. Connelly gives the Terps a 14 percent win probability on Saturday and nothing better than 23 percent in any game until Indiana visits on Nov. 21. To avoid a harsh spiral, Maryland's going to need a strong few months from Ross.

"It's definitely on my radar," Ross said. "Personally, I look at it as a challenge, being able to prove yourself against a proven defense or a defense that's doing real [well], like Michigan's doing."