James Ross III, 18, is earning his stripes as a freshman on the University of Michigan football team after a standout career at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. In his senior season in 2011, Ross was awarded a spot on the Associated Press Division 3-4 All-State Team and played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio on Jan. 7, in addition to earning All-Catholic honors in helping St. Mary’s win the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 3 state championship. His play made him a four-star recruit one of the top-recruited linebackers in the country. While Ross has seen limited action in his freshman season in Ann Arbor, he has recorded at least one tackle in each of the eight games he has played in. Ross continues to work hard in practice to prepare for the day when he will play a much greater role on the Wolverines’ defense. He also works hard in the classroom as he hopes to turn his love of working with children into a career after graduation, but is relishing being a role model for kids in the meantime.
You’re currently eight games into your freshman season with the Michigan Wolverines after winning a state championship and earning many accolades for your play last year. How would you describe the transition from high school football to playing on a major college football team, where everyone was a standout in high school?
JR: Oh yeah, it’s real different. It’s a lot faster and (there’s) a lot that goes into it with mental preparation. I’m still learning from (fellow Wolverines) Kenny Demens, Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan, and they’re all helping me out, but I’m still not there yet. It’s a big transition.
Please describe what your first few days of practice with U-of-M were like and how much of a culture shock that it was for you. What are some of the things that the coaching staff advised you that you had to improve in your play compared to when you were a standout linebacker in your senior season?
JR: That happened to me during summer camp. I stepped out on there not really knowing what to expect and when I finally got to practice, it was just a real fast tempo, something that I wasn’t used to.
As camp went on, then I started to get used to the speed and different knowledge of the game and different things like that. I’d say the speed of the game was the biggest thing I had to get used to.
In high school, you can pretty much do whatever you want to do, but like I said, they just want me to get better at my fundamentals, things like that.
I’ve been looking at Desmond and Kenny and seeing how they play and try to emulate my game off of them, because they’ve been here a little bit longer than I have and I just try to work with that.
It was pretty easy (to bond with my new teammates), because I always used to be around (in Ann Arbor) when I was getting recruited. I was always at practices and would talk to some of the teammates.
Once summer camp rolled around, I roomed with Kenny Demens. We bonded when we were rooming together.
Being a student at the University of Michigan and finding your way around the campus and the city of Ann Arbor can also be a challenge in itself. How did you get adjusted to life on campus at U-of-M and how much did going to school at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s prepare you for this experience? How do you balance your schoolwork with your duties on the football field?
JR: It was a big change of scenery. It’s way bigger. The classes are everywhere, so you have to learn your way around campus.
But I’d say where Orchard Lake helped me the most is right around this time (of year) because Orchard Lake also has classes (where you have to go) outside, so we had to walk outside in the cold weather to get from class to class.
It gets real chilly (at St. Mary’s), too. We’re right off the lake and wind blows right off the lake. It’s getting pretty cold now, so they prepared me to stay warm when I’m walking to my class.
We have mandatory study table times and I have a mentor also and she keeps me on top of everything I need to do and helps me get all the things I need to do in, so just staying at the study table in the Academic Center, it really helps me manage my time well. Also, we have other guys that help us and talk to us about ways to stay on top of everything.
I’m big time into kids. I like working with kids and benefiting them and just mentoring them. I’m taking a class right now, Education 360, and we visit different schools and mentor kids. I might be thinking about going into sociology or something like that so I can work with kids.
It’s a very great thing (to have kids look up to me). I used to look at older guys that played Michigan football like that and just to see kids look up to me is a very humbling experience and I just try to be the best example for those kids.
What was it like for you to finally step onto the field against Alabama in Cowboys Stadium in Texas in front of over 100,000 people for your career debut? The following week, you played in Michigan Stadium for the first time against Air Force. How would you describe to an outsider what it’s like to be on the field in the Big House?
JR: (The Alabama game) was a big adjustment for me. Just before the game, Kenny Demens, Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, those guys just started talking to me, telling me to stay focused and it’s just a regular game, just like all the other games and don’t be nervous, go in there, do what you got to do, you know what you got to do, just execute. That advice helped me a lot.
(Playing in Michigan Stadium) is a great feeling, one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. Just going out there, for me, just a section of the stadium would have just about about as many people as a (St. Mary’s) game, about 5,000 at the most. Just to see all those people and look around, I took a deep breath and I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” It was a great feeling.
Do you still keep in touch with the coaching staff and players at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s? What are your impressions of the school’s new red turf field? What does it mean to you to see your fellow St. Mary’s alumni, such as Dion Sims of Michigan State and Allen Robinson of Penn State, perform as well as they’re doing on the field?
JR: Yeah, I do. On our bye week, I went up there and visited them for practice and I went to their football game. I’m always staying in touch. They call me from time-to-time and talk about some of the games and some of the teams they played, so we stay in touch.
The only thing I said (about the red field) was that I’m mad that they didn’t get it a year before because I really would like to play on that. That’s a real cool thing. It’s different, but I like it.
(The success of St. Mary’s alumni in football) is great. We are like a brotherhood, just like I have a brotherhood here at Michigan, and to see those guys succeed is really exciting. Every time they have a game, we’ll call each other and talk about it. It’s great. It’s just like one of my brothers doing well.
What would you say has been the best moment of the season so far for you and what do you hope to see the rest of the year?
JR: I’d probably say the best moment of the season for me was when we beat (Michigan) State. That was a great moment, just seeing how much the game meant to the seniors and playing for the seniors. It’s way bigger than me and just to be involved in something like that is a great experience. That was probably the biggest moment.
(Getting the Paul Bunyan trophy after the game) was a great feeling, too. I’d never seen it in person before. I just always saw it on TV and I never knew that it was here. (State) had a four-year streak (with the trophy). After the game, they had (the trophy) in the media room and I was like, “Wow, that is great.”
We just have to stay focused on the task at hand and not let any distractions get in our way because we know what we’re capable of and we know what we can do and we just need to put it out there on the field.
How would you describe the bond with the Wolverine program and this team, and what it’s like to be part of this fraternity of Michigan Men?
JR: It’s a brotherhood. It’s a family. It’s just a great experience. You feel like you’re safe here. Everybody’s got your back. You’re going through practice, those guys are going through it too and you know you can look up to those guys to help you get through it. And just to have something like that is a great experience for me and I’m glad to be a part of it.
How would you describe playing for (Michigan Head Coach) Brady Hoke as compared to playing for (St. Mary’s Head Coach) George Porritt?
JR: They’re two different guys, two different personalities. My high school coach, he was a keep-to-himself type of guy, but he was a real good coach. I loved playing for him.
Also playing for Coach Hoke — he’s a different type of guy. He’s more adamant. He’s more like a father figure, just like my high school coach was, and he gives advice, examples and also coaches on the field and I’m really glad I picked this school.
Did you have a chance to listen to any former Michigan coaches or players about the responsibilities of being a Michigan football player and what was the advice that you most took to heart?
JR: Time after time, there’s a lot of guys that come in to talk to us, former Michigan players, and they just talk about the Michigan tradition and how it’s about winning and everything that comes along with it … It’s just a tradition to win and that’s what we’re going to do and we got to get back to that.
What do you foresee happening in the future with your role with the Wolverines, and what are your ultimate goals for yourself as far as college football is concerned? Where do you hope to be when your time in Ann Arbor is done?
JR: I’m pretty much not in control of that. I’m just going to keep working and looking to get better and taking (advice) from the guys, Kenny Demens, Desmond Morgan, and still try to get better.
The ultimate goal is always the Big Ten championship and that’s about it.
I never thought about (life after U-of-M) like that, but at the end, I probably just want to know that I did the best I could do for this program and for the group of guys here.