Editor’s note: TCU defensive tackle Ross Blacklock sustained a season-ending injury on Tuesday. The Star-Telegram has updated this in-depth profile of him.
Ross Blacklock never leaves home without it.
There’s always a Harlem Globetrotters signature red, white and blue basketball in the trunk of his car. He knows how to do all the tricks from spinning the ball on his finger to the inner roll.
That’s not too surprising. His dad, Jimmy Blacklock, is a former player and coach for the famed traveling team.
What might surprise some is what else Ross can do on a basketball court. TCU’s 329-pound nose tackle can dunk a ball … with ease. He’s been doing it since age 13.
“When I first started and really got into basketball I was 13 and I’d get lucky and I might just graze the rim, lightly put it in,” Ross said. “But when I got older, I slammed it in. I just had to get a little bit taller.”
Blacklock, now 6-foot-4, has switched to slamming quarterbacks and running backs to the ground as one of the massive interior linemen on the Frogs’ defense. He was projected to be a big part of the defensive line this season, arguably TCU’s strongest unit going into the season.
Unfortunately for Blacklock, he sustained a season-ending Achilles injury during a fall camp practice on Tuesday. His breakout sophomore season has been put on hold and he’ll surely come back with a vengeance when he returns in 2019.
“I think the D-line is going to be really great,” he said before his season-ending injury. “We’ve worked really hard over this past summer, spring, and I feel like we can be better than we were last year. That’s the whole entire goal – just be better than we were last year.”
That’s easier said than done.
TCU had the Big 12’s best defense a season ago. The Frogs ranked first in the conference in rushing defense (103.9 yards per game), pass defense (227.5 yards a game), scoring defense (19 points a game) and sacks (42).
The coaching staff was optimistic they could build on it, especially with players like Blacklock having more experience. But they now face an uphill battle without him.
The hope is a player like Terrell Cooper can step in for Blacklock, and the Frogs’ D-line rotation is deep enough to sustain the blow.
New-look nose tackle
In today’s game, defensive linemen are more athletic and in better shape than most think.
The NFL’s top defensive tackles are proof that times have changed, from the Rams’ Aaron Donald (10 percent body fat) to the Bengals’ Geno Atkins to the Buccaneers’ Gerald McCoy.
Blacklock is the latest, coming to TCU with just 13 percent body fat.
“He’s not fat. He’s just big,” Jimmy said. “He’s just huge, but I think the speed reflects what an athlete he is on the football field. But, man, he just grew and he grew and he grew.”
Despite having a famous father who played basketball, Ross gravitated more toward baseball, swimming, track and, of course, football in his youth-league days.
He was a standout running back in his early days and then developed into an all-district tight end early in his high school career. But, as stated, he kept growing and growing and eventually found a home as an interior defensive lineman.
“In the eighth grade, he was 190 pounds and a running back,” Jimmy said.. “Ninth grade he pushes 200 pounds and played linebacker and then he got up to 220-230 and they put him at tight end. He just started to grow and, before you know it, he’s a defensive tackle.
“But he’s always had great speed and feet and hands. Those are the most instrumental tools you have as an athlete. It’s amazing to see him playing college football. You can’t express it as a father. You don’t really have words to describe the emotions when he runs on the field. My heart is filled and overwhelmed every time he plays.”
Jimmy points to Ross’ 10th grade year at Elkins High School in Missouri City when he hit a growth spurt. The family bought a whole cow with the idea that the meat would last two or three years.
“All the meat, all the filet mignons … Ross killed it in a year,” Jimmy said, chuckling. “He just started to grow. Again, he wasn’t a fat guy, he was just solid. He was huge.
“At that point, his high school coach said, ‘I can make him an All-American tackle.’ I said, ‘Coach, you’re going to have to talk to Ross about that.’
“Ross said, ‘OK.’ And the coach did a really good job and Ross became a high school All-American.”
Ross had a standout career at Elkins High, capping it off with 56 tackles, including 10 for loss, and three sacks as a senior. He also had 11 QB hurries that season.
Ross played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and was ranked as the No. 4 defensive tackle in Texas and No. 18 in the country, according to 247 Sports. He picked TCU over schools such as Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M.
Oh, and his dad’s alma mater – the University of Texas.
“We let Ross make his own decision. Never pushed him,” Jimmy said. “He did the whole thing himself. TCU was the first college camp he went to and the coaches were very, very excited about him.
“It’s been a great choice for him going to TCU. He loves the school, loves the campus. And I’ve got to thank the coaching staff, too, because they’re doing a great job and he’s becoming a gentleman and a man. Coach [Gary] Patterson and the rest of them are doing a phenomenal job because he’s kept his head on straight and been focused and doing everything we could ask.”
It didn’t take long for Ross to make his presence felt last season.
After redshirting in 2016, Ross earned the starting job last season and ended up being named the Big 12’s co-defensive freshman of the year.
He finished the season with two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in 14 games, including a season-best two tackles for loss in the Alamo Bowl. Those are solid numbers for a nose tackle expected to clog up space and defenders rather than light up the box score.
His impact can be seen by TCU leading the conference in rush defense and the numbers put up by pass rushers like Banogu (8.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss) and Mat Boesen (11.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss).
“Being a D-tackle, we try to push the pocket in as much as we can so our ends can make plays,” Ross said. “I’m used to taking on double teams so my linebackers and safeties are free to be able to make plays. That’s kind of like my job. I enjoy doing it – whatever makes the team successful.”
Having a nose tackle that can command double teams and create penetration like Blacklock goes a long ways for the Frogs’ defensive success. Patterson said that’s one area the Frogs struggled with during the disappointing 6-7 season in 2016.
“Two years ago we had problems with – we weren’t big enough. We couldn’t hold up inside,” Patterson said last week. “We came back [with Blacklock and Corey Bethley], even though they were young, they were able to play and really that’s what it’s going to come down to this year. They all have to stay healthy.
“It’ll be interesting to see who can live up and play better than we did a year ago.”
Staying healthy is something Blacklock couldn’t do in fall camp, and it ruined what should have been a breakout season when he became more of a household name. Still, the future is bright for a player of his size and athleticism. Those are the type of D-linemen NFL teams crave these days.
The athletic genes run in the Blacklock family. Sometimes father and son excel in the same sport, sometimes in different.
For the Blacklocks, it’s a dad who had a legendary basketball career at the University of Texas as one of the first African-American basketball players and a son who is now a budding star for TCU’s football team.
Unfortunately, the “budding” star still hold the “budding” label for another year.