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Thursday, April 10, 2003
Utah OT used martial arts as foundation
By John Clayton

Ron McBride's tenure as the head coach at Utah ended this year because of a coaching change, but he gave the Utes a legacy on the football field. If things work out the way Jordan Gross would like, Houston Texans quarterback David Carr would owe McBride for the rest of his career.

Left tackles are hard to find. The Jaguars built their expansion franchise around left tackle Tony Boselli and became a playoff team by their second year. Every couple of years, a great one pops up, but that's the problem. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of years to wait for the next Boselli, Willie Roaf, Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden or Walter Jones.

Gross could become the first player from the state of Utah since 1982 to go in the top 10.
McBride, fired after the season, little found one growing in farm country. Gross was a 6-foot-4, 255-pound athlete that somehow caught McBride's eye. Son of a power company dispatcher, Gross grew up 50 miles west of Boise, Idaho. His alma mater, Fruitland High, had only 86 students in his class. Because he was one of the school's best athletes, Gross did everything. He played two-ways in football. He ran on the 400-meter relay team for track. He played basketball.

On the basketball court, McBride noticed Gross' footwork.

"The coach came to watch me play basketball and said they like my feet," Gross said. "They saw me running and moving and liked my feet. That kind of solidified my scholarship."

So how does a tall, skinny kid from Fruitland get the feet to develop into one of the next great left tackle prospects? Of all things, Gross took Tae Kwon Do as a six-year-old. Why? No one knows, but his black belt might be a lifesaver for Carr or whoever's blindside Gross protects.

"I got into Tae Kwon Do as a six-year-old and got my black belt my freshman year in high school," Gross said. "It helps a lot."

Where it helped was coordinating his body, which was growing taller and a little awkward. Between his freshman and sophomore years in high school, Gross grew six inches and gained 50 pounds. Because he had learned the martial arts so young, Gross never let his body lose coordination.

"I don't actually think about doing it while I'm playing," Gross said of the arts. "For the years leading up to this point, when I was growing and hitting my growth spurt when I was younger, I was doing a lot of kicking and hand-fighting and those types of things. That really helped my coordination and my hand-eye coordination and all those things develop faster than they would have."

Like cornerbacks, left tackles are often on an island. Defensive coordinators like to take their quickest, most agile defensive ends and line them up outside their left shoulder. Then, they turn loose the defensive end to get around the left tackle, so footwork is vital to a blocker.

What he didn't learn on the mat, he learned through constant drilling. Gross worked through colleges to make his feet even better on the football field.

"We did a lot of drills, ladders, bag drills, everything," Gross said. "There is no real secret. It's just a matter of doing them and doing them hard and not just going through the motions. I get shackled with bungee cords to make it harder to kick out on your pass sets, things like that. There are a lot of footwork things you can do, but not everybody wants to do them."

Former NFL head coach Joe Bugel has been working with Gross since the end of the football season and is amazed at the technique he developed during college. He calls him flawless. The former line coach of the Washington Redskins' "Hogs" believes Gross is one of the best to come into the NFL in years.

"The guy is big-time," Bugel said. "He's smart. His technique is great. He's got a nasty streak. He's going to be great."

The last time a football player from the state of Utah went in the top 10 was two decades ago when the Bears took Jim McMahon out of Brigham Young with the fifth pick. Talk about contrasts in personality. McMahon was one of the league's great characters. Gross married the girl he knew since they were 12. Their first date was on the bowling alley. After he paid for the bowling, she paid for the milkshakes afterward at Jack-in-the-Box.

At Utah, he developed into a feared blocker.

The guy is big-time. He's smart. His technique is great. He's got a nasty streak. He's going to be great.
Joe Bugel, former Redskins offensive line coach

"I was recruited as a lineman because I had a real big frame," Gross said. "I just hadn't really filled out yet. They expected to redshirt me but I turned out being able to play right away. We had some injuries and some other things, but I knew my plays and I wasn't out there making too many mistakes. They gave me an opportunity to get on the field and I never came off."

As Gross grew in high school, he didn't overdo things involving martial arts because he had such a good base knowledge. Sure, he broke wood with his hands or feet for fun, but knowing he could do it was good enough for him. His biggest thing was being able to handle staying coordinated growing 50 pounds in a year.

"To that point, I really wasn't the greatest athlete in the world," Gross said. "When that growth spurt hit after my freshman year, I kept my coordination and things started to take off in football, basketball and track. That's when I first started to notice the changes."

Like Boselli and some of the other top 10 tackles taken before him, Gross has a nasty streak.

"I have fun," Gross said. "I'm never in a pissy mood when I'm out there playing. If I knock a guy down and go after him when he's getting up, that's what is fun to me. We don't get to score touchdowns or catch passes, so as a lineman, I look for other ways to have fun. Beating the guy I'm playing against is what's fun. Yeah, a lot of people say I'm nasty. I'm proud of that."

Gross didn't get nasty about not being considered by Pac-10 schools. Utah, Boise State and Idaho were his only scholarship offers. Still, it gives him motivation to think about the bigger schools that passed on him.

"I had a lot of Pac-10 schools that gave me a look but didn't come through with a scholarship," Gross said. "That really disappointed me. Now, I kind of sit back and wonder what they are thinking. I don't have revenge or anything. It's interesting how the scouting process goes."

Maybe the Pac-10 was blind in not projecting Gross and seeing his feet, but some quarterback in the NFL is going to love having him protect his blindside.

John Clayton is a senior writer for