Jackson Ross eager to help Vols as 24-year-old redshirt freshman

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee redshirt freshman punter Jackson Ross of Melbourne, Australia, prepares to kick the ball away during April's Orange & White game in Knoxville.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee redshirt freshman punter Jackson Ross of Melbourne, Australia, prepares to kick the ball away during April's Orange & White game in Knoxville.

Tennessee's new starting punter is older than than its previous starting punter.

The Volunteers played the past five seasons with Paxton Brooks handling punts, including the last four with him as their starter, but that job now belongs to 24-year-old redshirt freshman Jackson Ross. Southeastern Conference football is just the latest athletic endeavor for the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Ross, who is from Melbourne, Australia, and played three years of Australian Rules Football.

"What people don't understand about Jackson Ross is that when he was 15 years old, he was the No. 2 junior tennis player in the whole country of Australia," Tennessee special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler said Saturday in a news conference. "The guy is a phenomenal athlete. Earlier this summer, we timed him (in the 40-yard dash), and he was in the 4.5 range. I kid you not. I think he could be a starting wide receiver for us.

"He might look like an accountant or something, but the guy is uberathletic."

The Vols held their 14th preseason practice Saturday and will have Sunday off before resuming Monday. They are now within two weeks of their Sept. 2 noon kickoff against Virginia in Nashville to open a 2023 season brimming with optimism following last year's 11-2 run to an Orange Bowl championship.

Ross enrolled at Tennessee before the start of last season, and he not only learned from Brooks while redshirting but studied the game in general.

"In Australia, you kind of learn your stuff throughout the week," Ross said, "and on game day, there is not much coaching. It's more about you making decisions. You're not looking over for the coaches. You just play off instinct in Australia.

"Here it's more structured, and you get told what to do a lot more."

In addition to punting, Ross also will hold for new starting kicker Charles Campbell, a sixth-year senior from Jackson, Tennessee, who spent his first five college seasons at Indiana. Campbell is filling the shoes of Chase McGrath, whose 40-yard field goal as time expired last October enabled Tennessee to end a 15-year losing streak against Alabama with a 52-49 win.

Ekeler said Ross claims to have the third-strongest arm on the team behind quarterbacks Joe Milton III and Nico Iamaleava, with Ekeler adding that it's probably best for him to put head coach Josh Heupel among the top three and list Ross fourth. Ross took issue with Ekeler's ranking.

"I think I'm better than Coach Heupel, especially at his age now," Ross said. "I'm still in my prime. I don't have the distance that Joe does."

Ross went home for two weeks earlier this summer, which was winter in Australia, and his parents and two of his three sisters will fly over in several weeks to attend three consecutive games. One of those contests is Tennessee's trip to Tuscaloosa.

"It's going to be pretty eye-opening for them," Ross said.

Ross played for the Hawthorn Football Club in Australia and said some of the crowds could reach 20,000. After attending Tennessee's games last season, Ross knows he will be competing in a much larger environment, and he's fine with that.

"It will be crazy playing in Neyland for the first time and just going out there and doing my thing," Ross said. "I think it will be awesome, and I can't wait. I will be soaking up the atmosphere when I'm out there."

Said Ekeler: "He's got a great disposition, and he's got a pro mentality because he was one. I absolutely love the guy."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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