You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
15 Mar 2007
by Doug Farrar
The city of Eclectic is a tiny hamlet in Elmore County, Alabama, about in the middle of the state. With an official population of 1,037 (as tabulated in the year 2000), the most distinctive aspect of Eclectic has been its name, reputedly given by a local resident who had taken an "eclectic" course of study at school. Not exactly miniseries material, but hey ... once upon a time, nobody knew anything about Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Just as Joe Namath changed that, Auburn guard Ben Grubbs is looking to put Eclectic on the map.
"Eclectic" can also be used to describe Grubbs' athletic career. Though he now stands as the undisputed top guard prospect of the 2007 NFL draft, Ben Grubbs' sports history from middle school on saw him playing three sports and just about every position on the football field.
The 23-year-old, born March 10th, 1984, loves the small town where he grew up. "It's a close-knit town," he said. "Not much violence. If you want to send your kid to a safe school, Elmore County is the school to send them to. That's a testament to how peaceful and quiet it is. It's close-knit and everyone loves each other." He especially loves his mother, Deborah, who raised Ben and older brother Cedric by herself.
"My mom, she works at the post office," Grubbs said. "She's worked there for the past 10 or 11 years. My dad, he passed away when I was five from a blood clot in his leg. So it's been basically me and my older brother -- he's 25. My mom just did a great job of raising two boys on her own and she's my motivation and inspiration. I thank God that He put her in my life because she definitely taught me and my brother a lot of things. I credit my success to her."
Athletics became important to Ben in middle school, but it was hardball, not pigskin, at first. Nicknamed "Big Hurt" after White Sox slugger Frank Thomas because he was the biggest kid on the baseball team, he caught the attention of another "when I was 13 years old," he said. "One of the football coaches (saw me) and he asked me to try out for the football team. I said, 'Why not?' and I tried out and that's really the start of my football career. I did pretty well and it just went on from there."
Football would be his main sport at Elmore County High, but Grubbs also lettered in basketball all four years there. Playing center and power forward, he believes that basketball helped his football agility and ability. "My offensive line coach always compared football to playing basketball," Grubbs recalled. "He asked me, 'Can you play ball?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he said that if you could play basketball then you can play football. The footwork is the same for keeping a guy with the ball from the goal and keeping a defensive lineman from getting to the quarterback."
Peaking at 248 pounds in high school, Grubbs played "wherever my team needed me. I remember playing receiver and catching screens and scoring touchdowns. I ran for touchdowns, caught the ball. I played (blocking) tight end, linebacker, and along the defensive line, so when I came to Auburn and all the transitions they put me through -- it came easy."
He made his mark wherever he played -- SuperPrep magazine named him one of the top ten prospects in the state, and he was afforded All-American honors. He made All-State as an offensive lineman, and All-County as a linebacker.
When it came time to pick a college, Grubbs narrowed it down to three. "Auburn, Alabama and LSU, and it was a tough decision for me, so I just prayed about it," he said. "The environment that Auburn has -- it was like my own home town. It wasn't too big or too small. Everything is pretty much close-knit. It's only 45 minutes from my hometown so my family could come see me. I could go home pretty easily and it basically just felt like home."
But his new home came with complications. It would take Grubbs a full two seasons to find his place on the field at Auburn. As a redshirt freshman in 2002, he competed as a 250-pound defensive tackle on the scout team. 2003 saw an important progression, as he moved to the offensive side of the ball, and a position as a 280-pound blocking tight end. The first sign that the O-line was where he belonged came right away.
"I practiced tight end for a couple of weeks (in the preseason), and then they threw me in the game against Mississippi State -- and (laughing) I had three pancakes (where a defender is bowled over) on one block. That was my first play ever and Carnell Williams went for something like a 45-yard touchdown and I didn't even block the right guy. I was just happy to get out there and play and the adrenaline was just flowing through my veins and I was excited." Grubbs saw action in several games that season and got his first start against Louisiana-Monroe.
In 2004, Grubbs finally found the right position. "After a pretty good season at tight end, during the off-season, (the coaches) came to me and wanted me to move inside to guard and I ended up starting three years there," he said. "Playing tight end, I had a sense of what the offensive scheme was because all I really did was block. It was the same exact plays and the same exact schemes. If it was a zone (blocking scheme) I knew I had to take my zone-step and I knew I had my own zone. That was one of the keys that got me to play guard like I did because it was pretty easy to catch on.
"I moved to guard in spring of 2004, and by the time fall rolled around I was ready to go."
Ready, indeed. Grubbs was named Auburn's Most Improved Lineman by his coaching staff after the 2004 season. Starting every game, he received a blocking consistency grade of 90.38 percent, with 76 key blocks and 16 that resulted in touchdowns, according to NFLDraftScout.com. He allowed two stops behind the line of scrimmage, one quarterback pressure, and no sacks in 816 plays -- an amazing season for a first-year guard at a major school.
Grubbs gives credit to Hugh Nall, the Tigers' line coach since 1999, for his fast start. "He took me in from day one," Grubbs said. "He's a hard coach. If you mess up he'll get on you, but if you do well he'll give you praise as well. I looked up to him and respect him. He played center for Georgia, and he blocked for Herschel Walker, so when you look at his background you can't help but respect the guy because he has the accolades to back up his talk.
"I just really paid attention to what he was coaching me to do and tried my best to apply it on the field. He helped me out with my technique -- he taught me to be patient for one because we really didn't get the techniques he was teaching us (at times), but he stuck with us and he made us better players."
2005 saw a new maturity and consistency in Grubbs, and the ascent of left tackle Marcus McNeill. The two of them combined to form perhaps the best left side in the collegiate ranks. For the second straight season, Grubbs received a great blocking consistency score (89.67 percent, the highest of any lineman in the SEC), and the Tigers averaged 133.4 yards on the ground over the left side after the departures of running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams. Grubbs was a first-team All-SEC selection: his 22 blocks that led to touchdowns was a conference high.
The mention of blocking consistency scores got Grubbs thinking about grades and technique. "I know that after every game, on Sunday when we'd come in and watch film, we'd have our grade sheet there and (the coaches would) grade on technique, assignment and productivity. If you had a pancake, he'd give two points, so your grade can vary from how you did in each game. After every game we had a grading sheet and I was pretty consistent. It's just like the grading system in class."
Grubbs detailed three different kinds of blocks on which he has been constantly graded -- pancake, rodeo, and cockroach blocks. "A cockroach block is where we just simply cut the defender's legs out from under him," he said. "Rodeo is about pass protection -- if I block the guy the whole time the quarterback has the ball and don't give up any pressure, that's a rodeo. It's like me staying on the bull the whole time -- that's a rodeo. A pancake block is when you just put the guy on his back."
What's his favorite part of the game -- heading upfield in one of Auburn's zone schemes, or using his power and explosiveness to run people over? "I would say pancaking a guy because it just takes the guy's pride from him and you know you'll pretty much have him for the rest of the game," he said. "During my career at Auburn we always had competitions with who could have the most pancakes. Coach Nall, he'd put them up on the board (after) each game, and at the end of the year we'd see who had the most. (Right guard) Tim Duckworth and I had some good competitions. I had 38 (pancake blocks) and I think he had something like 41, so he won that one."
There was enough of every type of block from Grubbs in 2006 to propel him to the top of the charts. McNeill had moved on to great success with the San Diego Chargers, and Grubbs was now the leader of Auburn's young line. With a 90.57 percent score, he led his conference in blocking consistency for the second straight year. It was the culmination of all his dreams -- by the time his final season was done, Grubbs was rated as the top guard prospect by just about every expert and scouting service in the country
It was time for the NFL to come calling.
Thought to be one of the most consistent performers during Senior Bowl practice week, Grubbs had a time of it at the Scouting Combine in late February. He came to Indianapolis with a viral infection that affected all his drills, though he did the full workout. He tried to make up for it in the interview process, the most remarkable part of the process, according to Grubbs. "Just walking into the rooms with and meeting with the different head coaches -- I was like a kid in a candy store because if you love football you'd definitely be impressed with some of the coaches that were there," he said. "They really don't ask the questions, they let another guy do that, but that was pretty much the most exciting thing.
"I had several interviews each day and I think I did well. I know those play an important role in getting drafted because they just want to get to know you as a person. They know you can play football, but they want to know how you are off the field. They asked about my background and my family. Have I been arrested? Have I ever been suspended or missed any games for any disciplinary problems?" Grubbs never missed a game at Auburn due to injury or for any other reason, and he started in 37 straight contests.
"A lot of teams asked me about our blocking schemes," he continued. "They asked me to go to the board and draw up some plays. Some gave me a time limit. I had like a minute to go through all the run plays and all the pass plays and I had to draw it up on the board and explain to them my blocking scheme and what the rest of the line had to do."
During his well-attended Pro Day on March 12, Grubbs was able to make amends for the physical aspects of that Combine performance. He performed better in five of six drills:
(All numbers courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. Standard FO disclaimer: Any play which requires an offensive lineman to run 40 yards is probably ill-advised.)
"I did everything," he recalled of his Pro Day. "I got all the agility drills, I jumped and broad jumped. My Combine numbers weren't the best but they were good enough to stand on their own, so I just wanted to improve my numbers. I improved on everything except my pro agility. All the scouts that were there said I did a really good job and to keep it up. Kansas City and the Rams were there. I would say we had something like 14 or 15 (NFL) teams (in attendance)."
Grubbs has visits scheduled with the Cowboys and Redskins in early April, and his agent text-messaged the name of a third team near the end of our interview -- this is a young man very much in demand.
Having graduated in May of 2006 with a major in Public Administration and a minor in Business, Grubbs had time to put in extra training and film study through his last collegiate season. He's entering the big leagues at an exciting time for linemen -- with the mega-deals being handed out to every free agent guard of any merit or distinction, his position is receiving unprecedented acclaim.
"For one, teams are investing so much into the quarterback, and to keep the quarterback healthy you need a good offensive line," Grubbs opined, when asked why he thinks guards are getting "skill position" money all of a sudden. "In years past, the left tackle was the most valuable, but as you were saying, it's moving onto the guards now because they play an important role as well. You need a good offensive line to protect the quarterback and to get yardage in the running game. I think that's one reason that players are getting the money, like (San Diego guard) Kris Dielman, he got the money this year, so I guess it's exciting because we're finally getting the recognition we deserve. The tackles always get drafted higher than the guards, and a lot of guards don't even get drafted in the first round, so it's good to see this."
Is he a first-round talent? How good is Ben Grubbs, how will his skills transfer to the NFL, and why will he succeed if it happens? To Rob Rang, Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, Grubbs is as sure a thing as there is in this year's draft. "Grubbs is NFLDraftScout.com's top ranked offensive guard, and a likely first round pick," Rang said on Wednesday. "He is viewed as a pure guard, as opposed to Texas' Justin Blalock and Tennessee's Arron Sears, who each have experience at tackle.
"Grubbs has previous experience at other positions, however. He saw time at defensive tackle as a freshman and carries over this intensity onto the field as a guard. The overall athleticism that allowed him to play tight end transferred to his guard play. Grubbs' athleticism, size, strength, and intensity make him arguably the top guard prospect from the SEC since Alan Faneca left LSU in 1997. Grubbs should compete for Pro Bowl accolades early in his career. The interior line is among the strongest positions in the 2007 draft. Grubbs, along with USC center Ryan Kalil, are the principal headliners of the group."
For now, he waits, works and watches. In April's last weekend, he'll hear his name called and the next challenge will begin. And once again, Ben Grubbs will be asked to take a new challenge to its limits.
Small town? Yes. Big time? Absolutely.
36 comments, Last at 28 Apr 2007, 6:58pm by Tom Kelso