Grove seen as potential cornerstone of line

Casually engage Jake Grove in conversation, even for just a few minutes, and you come away convinced that the Virginia Tech center is an amiable enough young man. A good ol' farm boy, as conversant in matters of crop rotation as he is in cut-blocks, a self-made player who is about as nice a kid as you'd ever want to meet.

But dig a little bit more, plumb the depths of Grove's football mindset, and that's where the Mr. Hyde element of his persona lies. Ask teammates about Grove's dark side, heck, quiz the Hokies snapper himself about a well-documented nasty streak, and you understand why he is a center of attention.

League scouts love nastiness and that's part of the reason they are embracing Grove as the premier center prospect in this year's draft.

"I want to be a guy," Grove acknowledged at the combine workouts two months ago, "who people don't like."

On the field, Grove has certainly succeeded in being viewed by opponents as a sociopath of sorts, a wild man capable of all manners of skullduggery. The three-year starter figures to have a far more difficult time, however, turning NFL coaches and scouts against him. Most league people come away from any videotape session starring Grove, and from the personal interviews he had with scouts, flat-out gushing over him.

They like him as a player and a person and as a potential cornerstone for their line units. There is a quality of the genuine in Grove -- who relishes the time annually spent helping his 85-year-old grandfather, Whitney Grove, tend to the family's farm -- to which people can't help but be drawn. Yet, make no mistake about it, the scouts want Grove to drive defensive tackles off the line of scrimmage, not to maneuver a tractor around the practice fields every day.

At the combine, where he measured 6-feet-3 3/8 inches and 303 pounds, he churned out 31 "reps" in the standard 225-pound bench press. He also clocked an impressive 5.19 time in the 40-yard dash and flashed excellent overall athletic skills.

A self-made player, the kind of worker who doesn't have to be shown the way to the weight room, Grove has become just as adept at the former as the latter. Teams haven taken note of the high grades he received in the classroom and on the field, consistently scoring as the Hokies' best blocker in terms of assignment completion, and most scouts agree he is the best center prospect by far in this draft.

In a draft pool that features what has become the standard collection of behemoths, it might be easy to misplace Grove, given the incredible size of the line prospects. But in part because of his impressive resume, and because the position he plays has seen a recent uptick on the respect meter, Grove certainly has a legion of admirers.

"He's a smart kid, both football-smart and natural intelligence, and you need that at the center spot," said Washington Redskins assistant head coach Joe Bugel, one of the finest offensive line coaches of this generation. "And he's tough, gritty, keeps coming at you and doesn't back down from anybody. Plus the center position, after being shuttled to the background for too many years, is slowly starting to emerge again."

The operative term there is slowly but, with hubs like Grove and Cleveland's 2003 first-round center Jeff Faine, the respect curve may be accelerated. A former Notre Dame star, Faine was the 21st overall player chosen in the '03 lottery, about the same area of the first round to which Grove is projected.

Should the tough-minded Grove go in the first round, it will mark only the second time in the past 24 lotteries that a center has gone that high in consecutive drafts. The last time there were back-to-back first-round centers was in the 1989 and 1990 drafts. The only other occasion since the 1970 merger in which snappers were chosen in consecutive first rounds came with a threepeat, when Seattle's Blair Bush (1978), Robert Shaw of Dallas (1979) and Jim Ritcher of Buffalo (1980) were picked.

Of virtually every position on offense, certainly on the offensive line, the center spot has become the equivalent of a red-headed stepchild. It is a spot where coaches, at least in the recent history of the position, have decided they can just plug in a guy or move someone into the breach. That is reflected in the fact 11 of the NFL's current 32 starting centers are players who began their careers at other line positions. And nearly half of the starters are players who entered the NFL as late-round choices or even undrafted free agents.

Given the widening scope of responsibility -- with the recognition skills now required, and with so many defenses now playing a tackle in the "one technique," right on the nose of the snapper -- teams are beginning to rethink their stances on the center spot. Grove is anything but shy about the potential for being a key part of the re-emergence of the center position in the league.

Then again, with his country charm and disarming aw-shucks demeanor, Grove isn't too shy about anything, truth be told. Clearly enjoying his time in the spotlight at the combine, Grove had to be all but dragged down from the podium after his interview session with the media. After that, he was followed for several more minutes by a parade of reporters. Even he seemed a bit surprised -- "Y'all do realize that I'm a center, now, don't ya?" he noted.

But in circumstances both notable and notorious, Grove has been a lightning rod of sorts in his college career, a player who because of his nature and his football position literally and figuratively has a way of winding up in the middle of things. Some opponents have charged him with crossing the line on his blocking techniques, of going for the knees of defensive linemen, of excessive extracurricular contact after the whistle.

Last year, Miami Hurricanes head coach Larry Coker singled out Grove via videotape for what he felt were some cheap-shot blocks. The public disdain in which Coker held Grove earned the Hokies star a nickname, "Dirty Grove," from his needling teammates. Grove isn't especially proud of the handle but, at the same time, he doesn't try to dodge it. And, rest assured, he knows that scouts are aware of the nickname, because a few mentioned it to him during private interview sessions.

His reaction?

"I'm just the kind of player who loves contact, that's all, and I'm going to keep riding you until somebody separates us," Grove explained. "I like hitting people. I like hitting people for the entire play. That's just second nature for me, you know, and it's not meant to cause trouble. But I want (defensive linemen), after we're done, to know they were in a dogfight. I don't care if people call me dirty. As long as they don't call me soft, that's all."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.