The minute he laid eyes on big Derrick Ross, Robert Wilcox knew he had something special. Huntsville High School’s former head coach, Wilcox figured Ross had a future in football if he’d just settle down and apply himself.

It took some doing, but Ross finally did that.

This weekend, the former Hornet star likely will see his biggest reward yet. Ross, a 5-10, 238-pound running back, is expected to be chosen in the NFL draft.

He won’t be a first-round selection, or even a first-day selection for that matter. But he probably will be picked during the late rounds Sunday afternoon. That’s something that’s happened to only three Hornets in the past.

Joe Clements was taken in the 20th round by the New York Giants in 1958, Terry Hoage was chosen by the New Orleans Saints in 1984, and the New York Jets in 1997 picked Chuck Clements.

Ross said he’ll be thrilled to be the fourth Hornet picked.

“I’m excited, so excited,” Ross said Thursday night in a telephone interview. “I’m a little nervous. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I don’t know where I’m going. Hopefully, God will put me in the perfect place.”

A game-breaking defensive end as a junior in Wilcox’s first year in Huntsville, Ross helped the Hornets win its most-recent district championship in 2000. He became the Hornets’ featured running back as a senior, and with 1,310 yards and 17 touchdowns in ’01, he earned a football scholarship from Blinn College in Brenham.

After an All-American sophomore season with the Buccaneers, Ross got an offer to continue his football career at Tarleton State in Stephenville. Sam Houston State’s current head coach, Todd Whitten, gave Ross a scholarship, and all Ross did was rush for 3,072 yards and 35 touchdowns in two seasons with the Texans.

“Derrick overcame a lot of adversity, a lot of which he caused himself,” Wilcox said Friday from Round Rock, where he is now coaching. “We never took away what we felt was the meal ticket for him. The No. 1 thing for Derrick was football, and we knew he had what it took to be a big-time player.

“I didn’t feel it fair to remove football from him when he’d get in trouble. That happened a lot, but Derrick was never a problem in football. Matter of fact, he was a leader for us. He was always on the field early, ready to go. He was a kid you’d want on your side.”

Ross said he’s sure glad he had guys like Wilcox, Whitten, Huntsville’s current head coach Mitchell Coey and others on his side. When he most needed it, they helped him grow up and get this chance to play professional football.

“It’s been a hard trip, coming from Division II,” Ross said. “A lot of really good coaches prepared me for this. I know it will take me a while to learn what I need to do, but I’m ready and eager to learn.”

Coey said he always believed in Ross. The biggest challenge was making Ross believe in himself.

“We told Derrick that if he’d get on the right path, he would have an opportunity to play on Sundays,” Coey recalled. “We saw his size and his God-given talent. To be so big and to run so fast, and to have hands to catch the football, that kind of combination is so rare. Derrick’s also got a big heart, and he’s one of the tougher kids to come through here.

“He’s grown up a lot since high school.”

The last few months have been a whirlwind of activity as Ross prepared for this weekend. He did everything he could to attract the attention of the NFL coaches and scouts, and at times, it was an exhausting, but always interesting, endeavor.

First, he hired an agent, Brian Mackler, who works in New York City. Tarleton State assistant coach Sam McElroy was familiar with Mackler’s work, and he helped Ross get in touch with him.

“My agent flew me up to New York and told me I had to lose weight,” Ross said.

Prior to the NFL Scouting Combine, Ross weighed 242 pounds. By the time he got to Indianapolis in February, he had had lost more than 15 pounds.

“I was 226 pounds of muscle,” Ross said with a laugh. “At the combine, scouts were looking at me and they couldn’t believe how much weight I had lost.”

Ross again caught the scouts’ attention when he hit the gas in the 40-yard dash. He ran a 4.52-second time, which is super quick for a running back as big and strong as Ross.

“I heard lots of oohs from the crowd and a bunch of people congratulated me,” Ross said. “They told me 4.52 is fast for a bigger back. They told me, ‘Nice running out there Derrick,’ and more and more of them started talking to me.”

Ross also benched 225 pounds 20 times, he recorded a 35-inch vertical jump and ran well in two other drills. Soon after Ross ran the 4.52 time, he was invited to a meeting with Buffalo’s general manager Marv Levy, a Hall of Fame coach who led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls.

“That was like a dream come true,” Ross said. “It was amazing to look around and see all those coaches. Bill Parcells was really looking at me during the drills. I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m here.”

In addition to the physical drills Ross and the other 300-plus prospects were asked to do, they were given written tests.

“We did so many tests. There was one whole day of nothing but tests,” Ross explained. “They were trying to see how you think. One of the questions asked if you’d rather be a cat or a dog. My agent told me to just be myself and answer every question honestly.”

Ross must have done all right because he was suddenly attracting worlds of attention.

“I came home and people started calling my phone. Then, our pro day came up at Tarleton,” Ross said. “My agent told me, ‘If no one shows up, that means you did good at the combine.’ It was all good — no one showed up. I was kind of worried, but my agent told me again that was a good sign.”

Ross is planning a small family get-together Sunday at his mother’s house in Huntsville.

“It’s going to be small, just my mom, my sister, my niece and nephew and my girlfriend,” Ross said.

A lifelong fan of the Dallas Cowboys, Ross said he’d be thrilled to be picked by Philadelphia, Washington or the New York Giants.

“I don’t care where I go,” Ross said, “I just want a chance to play.”

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