Cory Ross loves coaching, teaching the game of football
Story by Shane G. Gilster
Cory Ross finished his Nebraska career in 2005 as one of the best all-around backs in program history.
He is currently just outside the top 10 in career rushing yards at NU with 2,743 yards and holds the school record for most receiving yards (131) and touchdowns (2) in a game by a running back.
Named Nebraska’s Offensive MVP after both his junior and senior seasons, Ross was a co-captain in his final year and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors as a senior.
“When I got to college my first two years, I didn’t have to focus on blocking because we ran the option. When (Bill) Callahan came in with the NFL scheme, you had to focus on blocking more,” Ross said. “Randy Jordan (former NU running backs coach) said that if you can’t block, you can’t play. I really liked our offense under Callahan because you had to be able to run, block and catch, which made you a complete back.”
As a senior in 2005, Ross led Nebraska with 882 rushing yards, including a season-high 161 yards in his Husker finale against Michigan in the Alamo Bowl. He also caught a then Nebraska running back record 43 receptions and grabbed three touchdown receptions. Ross also set Nebraska running back records for receiving yards in a game and receptions in a game.
As a junior, Ross ran for 1,102 yards and six scores, along with a pair of TD receptions. His 1,102 yards rushing was the 27th 1,000-yard effort in school history and the 18th-most productive single-season rushing total in Nebraska history. Ross averaged 100.2 rushing yards per game, a total that ranked fifth in the Big 12 and 23rd nationally. He also caught 21 passes, including a pair of TDs. He concluded the season with 138 yards on a then school-record 37 carries in Nebraska’s Alamo Bowl win over Michigan State.
When Callahan was fired at Nebraska in 2007, two years after Ross left, it was surprising to Ross because he felt Callahan was an ideal coach with an offense that worked. But he realized it was the defensive side of the ball that doomed his former head coach.
“I played for him for two years,” said Ross about Callahan. “I knew how focused he was trying to win and bring us back to dominance. It wasn’t like he was trying tolose. I thought he was a great coach. We utilized the running back coming out of the backfield catching the football. We just struggled with the defense. A lot of fans didn’t like Callahan and what he did with the walk-on program but his offense was game-changing.
“But at Nebraska, you have to win so when Tom Osborne came in as athletic director, a change was needed. He (Osborne) brought in coach (Bo) Pelini who was the defensive coach in 2003. He was a special kind of coach. There were times when he was coaching, I wanted to play defense because he made you want to play for him.”
Before arriving at Nebraska, Ross was a highly recruited player coming out of Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, Colorado.
He was an All-American cornerback and started at running back, where he rushed for over 1,500 yards and 23 TDs as a senior in 2000. He led the state in total offense with 3,700 yards and had 12 touchdown returns (six on kickoffs and six on punts). On defense, he had five interceptions, returning two for scores and was third on the squad with 84 tackles.
“I was recruited by Texas, Texas Tech, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska. I had a trip set up for Miami (Florida) but later canceled it,” Ross said. “When I took the visit to Lincoln and saw the fans and tunnel walk, that was it, I was sold. Lots of teams recruited me as a cornerback so I narrowed it down to the teams that would give me a chance at running back.”
Current NU running back coach Ron Brown was the receivers coach for Nebraska back then and was the primary recruiter for Ross.
“Anybody who has been around Coach Brown, loves him. He is just a special human being and Nebraska is grateful to always have had him,” Ross said.
After such an illustrious career in high school and college, Ross had to leave his ego at the door when he entered the NFL. Ross didn’t get drafted, but that didn’t deter him from his dream of playing professionally.
“I think everyone who isn’t drafted is disappointed and frustrated. Those that are in the league that were not drafted know what it takes to fight for what is theirs and that is what I did. Not getting drafted wasn’t going to stop me,” Ross said.
Ross signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent on May 12, 2006. The transition to the NFL is something you better learn fast, otherwise you won’t make it. The good thing for Ross was he was a fast learner. “You won’t be able to use your speed like you thought you would when you get to the league. Guys are just as fast as you are and are bigger and stronger. It is a game of angles and you got to realize you can’t do too much juking and shaking like you used to. You have to hit that hole hard and get out of there in a hurry,” Ross said.
In his first year (2006) in the NFL, the 5-6, 201-pound Ross got an opportunity to play with the injury to Ravens’ return man B.J. Sams. Ross became the kick returner and displayed good speed with impressive, open-field moves. In 2007, he saw action in six games. His coming out party was when he ran for 72 yards and one touchdown against Pittsburgh in the Ravens’ final regular season game.
“I played against one of the best defenses every day. I played against the best linebacker in Ray Lewis, so when I got to play against Pittsburgh, I was prepared going up against their top-five defense. I had a great time playing that game because I was used to going up against the best every week in practice,” Ross said.
While at Baltimore, Ross competed for playing time against four other running backs – Willis McGahee, Mike Anderson, Musa Smith and P.J. Daniels.
While I was there, all I could do was practice as hard as I could and go as hard as I could. Coaches and players really didn’t get to see what I could do until I got into that Pittsburgh game.
“I loved Baltimore and its diehard fans. The veterans really helped me out when I got there. Ray Lewis gave me a lot of advice and shared his experience with the younger players. He is an all-around good guy. Ray is a cool, laid-back, relaxed, and fun person. He read his Bible a lot,” Ross said. “But once Sunday rolled around during the season, he is a new man. It made me realize how much he loved the game. He not only got himself going but everyone around him. When he’s doing something he loves, he put all his emotion into it.”
Ross played for the Ravens for three years, but then got hurt and had ankle surgery causing him to get out of football for a year. He then moved on to play for the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League under head coach Dennis Green. For three seasons, Ross showcased his ability as a runner and receiver out of the backfield and was the UFL Offensive Season MVP in 2010. This opened the door to get back to the NFL.
“I signed with the New England Patriots but injuries happened and so they brought in someone else. I then went to Canada and got hurt with the Edmonton Eskimos so I decided my playing career was over,” he said.
Ross came back to Lincoln and became part of the coaching staff in 2013 for the Lincoln Haymakers, an Arena football team and later the head coach of the Omaha Beef (2015-2017).
“I took over a Beef program that was in shambles,” Ross said “I told them it would be a three-year process to turn it around. The first year I took over we went 1-11, the second year was 7-5, then the third year made it to the championship game. After that season I got the offer to come to the Quad City Steamwheelers of the Indoor Football League (IFL) in Moline, Illinois. We made the playoffs the first year going 8-4 but COVID shut us down so now we are in the rebuilding process again.”
After playing only one game in 2020, the IFL season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which the Steamwheelers extended to also include the 2021 season. “This past season I coached the offense with the Bismarck Bucks and helped them make the playoffs. I love coaching. I love teaching, I love being around football,” said Ross, who has been coaching indoor football for seven years now. For the 39-year-old Ross, this has become a full-time job. Besides being a head coach, he does sales for the team by going out and getting sponsors as well as recruiting guys to come play for him. He also helps the players find jobs outside of football to support themselves.
“I enjoy the process of recruiting in this league but it is hard getting players because of the pay they receive,” Ross said. “The salary range for our league is anywhere between $4,000 to $5,000 for the season, which breaks down to $250 to $300 per game. But we offer opportunities to guys who went undrafted to showcase themselves and get looks from CFL and NFL teams.”
Ross has 25 players on his active roster which started at 40 when training camp began. He currently doesn’t have any Husker players on the team but is trying to connect with former Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who is being courted by several other IFL teams.
“I have been pretty successful at taking quarterbacks and receivers and allowing them to prosper in my offense, making them all-league in the conference,” Ross said. “Guys also like the fact that I’m honest and up front with them. I tell them that it is a low percentage trying to make the NFL from college, but it is even lower trying to make it coming from the IFL.
“You have to invest in yourself to play great in this league and then get the film you want to show the scouts in the NFL and CFL. We have a great ownership group here, and when you have that, it allows you to help these young men with job opportunities and get them in the workplace if football doesn’t work out.”
Ross said he coaches an exciting brand of football, which is attractive to both players and fans alike.
“Our game is so fast-paced, it gives you the best of both worlds. It showcases the players’ talents with indoor football. It is like bringing outdoor football indoors. It is exciting and the fans love it. Our arena holds 13,000 and we fill it up pretty good. It is like hockey with football.”
Unfortunately, that level of excitement and success isn’t happening for Ross’ former college team.
“There is a culture change that is happening at Nebraska right now,” Ross said. “As a coach, I understand the level of patience it takes to try and change the culture. I had to do that and it took me three to four years and now you are talking college, where you have around 100 or so kids on one team. “I saw some strides this year, especially with the defense, but offensively they just have to put the pieces together and make it make sense. That is the struggle they are having.
Adrian Martinez is so up and down; he’s pushing too much to be great. I have seen players try to do that. That is why mistakes keep happening during the game and makes it so frustrating for the fans, coaches and players. I was at Nebraska during the good and the bad. We played for the national championship my first year and then spiraled downward with losing records and no bowl games.”
But culture isn’t the only issue that Nebraska is facing as it strives to become a winning football program again. There are a handful of other factors according to Ross.
“Everyone else has caught up with the Nebraska football program,” Ross said bluntly. “We had the top-of-the-line facilities, the technology, and the weight training, but now the other schools have invested in their programs and have that as well. Also, joining the Big Ten has been difficult because we lost a big recruiting base in Texas. We had a lot of Texas boys on our roster when I played.
“From an offensive coordinator perspective, we are not
utilizing the tight end like we should. When I played in the option and West Coast offenses at Nebraska, we used the tight end a lot. We have some pretty good tight ends on the team right now that we can do some things with in those run/play action plays.”
Ross also would like to see the running back become more prominent in the Husker offense, like it was when he played. “As a Nebraska running back, the more you get the football, the more your eyes open up and you get a feel for the game and the defense. I think we have pulled back too fast on guys. If they are doing well, keep them in there to get them that repetition. When I played, I wanted at least 19 to 20 carries. If I didn’t get that, it wasn’t a good day for me,” Ross said. “But you have to have a guy that is a three-down back who is good in pass protection. I don’t know how those running backs at Nebraska are at pass protection, so maybe that plays a part in who they are playing.”
Looking back on his playing career, Ross wished he would have worked on his blocking. So, he has this advice for high school running backs thinking about college and then playing in the NFL.
“If you are being recruited, it means you can run, have the moves and vision. Keep that, but the number one thing to improve on is your blocking. That will keep you on the field longer than you think it will,” he said.
Ross would someday like to coach his philosophies in college, and with his experience, has the ability to coach either quarterbacks, running backs or receivers.
“I would love to coach and mold those young players,” he said. “I just want to make an impact in someone’s life and be able to change it for the better.”