Josh Ross

Pepperell’s Josh Ross took the initiative to better himself in the offseason and became a standout at free safety for the Dragons in his senior season.

Being physical is an important attribute for a football player to have, especially on defense.

But being smart about the game makes a player really valuable, and when both of those qualities are present — those are the makings of a dynamic player.

According to Pepperell head coach Rick Hurst, that describes senior free safety Josh Ross.

For his efforts in leading the Dragons’ defense to a successful season with a playoff appearance, Ross is being named the Rome News-Tribune Defensive Player of the Year.

Hurst said Ross’ ability to understand the game of football is what makes him such a commodity.

“He’s a special player,” Hurst said. “I’ve been around some really good free safeties and he’s in the top two, if not the best. He’s physical and he really has a good understanding of our defense and what teams are going to try to do.”

Ross finished the season with 111 tackles with 47 solos, eight tackles for a loss, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

From the free safety position, the senior helped lead the Dragons to a 9-3 record overall and a 6-1 region record, with their only Region 7-AA loss coming at the hands of Rockmart. The Dragons also had four shutouts on the year.

As a free safety, Hurst called Ross the last line of defense, but Ross could also pose problems near the line of scrimmage as well.

“He has a really good feel for the ball,” Hurst said. “There’s a lot of times he made tackles at the line. That’s someone that understands how to pursue.”

Hurst says part of the reason Ross is such a capable football player is because he doesn’t limit himself to just one sport. Ross competes in pole vault for the track and field team, wrestles and plays for the soccer team.

Ross, who was also named Region 7-AA’s Defensive Player of the year and was named to the AJC All-State team, really came into his game this season after seeing he needed to improve on his tackling during his junior year.

“The guy has good leverage, but also an understanding of the angle he needs to take,” Hurst said. “We worked on that last summer. He really started to concentrate on the proper angles to take. He puts on a lot of pressure and makes teams one dimensional.”

Ross wasn’t just a defensive stalwart, but also played a role with the offense when the player’s power was needed at the fullback position in short-yardage situations.

In a contest against Armuchee, Ross picked off two passes in a 63-0 victory, and that was just one of four shutouts he helped lead the Dragons during in the 2019 season.

“He’s just an athlete, and he has such a great awareness of the game,” Hurst said. “He’s one of the smartest athletes I’ve ever been around. He just understands the game he’s in.”

Also on the first team is Ross’ teammate Payton Rhoades. The senior was all over the field for the Dragons this season as a receiver, a defensive back and a punter. Rhoades had 45 catches on the season with 702 yards receiving for an average of 15.6 yards per catch and six touchdowns.

As a punter, Rhoades had an average of 35.6 yards on 27 punts.

Pepperell defensive end Tyler Liggons joined the first team with his Dragons’ teammates finishing the year with 13 sacks on and 70 tackles.

For Rome High, defensive linemen Rayquon Jones and Bryant Wilkinson combined to help lead one of the toughest defenses in the area, allowing only 15.3 points per game and ending the year with three shutouts.

Jones had 29 tackles, four for a loss and seven sacks, and Wilkinson finished with 76 tackles, 17 for a loss and five sacks.

At the linebacker position, fellow Rome player and first teamer Nick Burge racked up 93 tackles on the season with six for a loss and two sacks.

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