JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Dwayne Gratz and the Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be made for each other.
The Jaguars have tended to be overlooked, sometimes in their own backyard, and thus will approach the 2013 season with a chip on their shoulder that’s more like a boulder. That description applies equally to Gratz, the cornerback out of Connecticut selected by them in the third round of the NFL draft.
Although he grew up only five minutes away from Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., the Scarlet Knights didn’t begin expressing an interest until UConn already gave him a scholarship. And after the Jaguars made him the first of the three cornerbacks drafted by them, many experts expressed shock and accused Gratz of not even being the Huskies’ top pro prospect at that position.
So here he goes again, taking slights against him — whether real or perceived — and turning them into additional fuel with an organization badly in need of a new identity.
“Knowing that people won’t notice my skills motivates me,” Gratz said. “I just want to go out there and show them what type of player I am. You might not see it right away, or you might not even notice me. But I’m going to do my job the best I can. You’re going to know me as someone who works hard, someone who’s coachable, and someone who’s going to go out there and try his best and do his best.”
Don Brown, the defensive coordinator at Connecticut the past two years, can vouch for the knack of Gratz to use that aggression to get under an opponent’s skin.
“Whatever talk he’s going to utilize, he’s going to back it up,” said Brown, who left in December to take a similar position at Boston College. “He’s one of those guys who searches for reasons to have a chip on his shoulder as he gets ready to play each and every game. He plays better when he’s a little on the edge and has a little edge about the game. Anything to motivate him, to help him compete at the highest level, he’ll certainly utilize that in a positive way.”
But attitude alone goes just so far. Gratz needed to adjust from a different system his freshman and sophomore years to becoming a press corner under Brown. That required hours upon hours studying film and applied what he learned there once he got on the field.
Although the Huskies struggled last season, finishing with a 5-7 record, their defense was ranked among the best in the nation. The cornerback combo of Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a third-round pick by the Tennessee Titans, and Gratz was a huge reason why.
“Here’s a guy who was in two systems,” Brown said. “So he had to play a multitude of coverages and a multitude of techniques and fundamentals at the corner position. And some of those guys become attractive due to their flexibility.”
Gratz worked out for Jaguars coach Gus Bradley and other staff members after UConn’s Pro Day in March. When Bradley was the defensive coordinator in Seattle, the Seahawks relied on big corners pressing receivers at the line and disrupting routes. But at 5-foot-11, he doesn’t quite fit into that mold and is listed as two inches shorter than Wreh-Wilson.
Yet the Jaguars didn’t hesitate to choose him, partly because of his durability — Gratz started 41 games in a row to end his college career — and also his big play ability.
“It’s not always the height,” Bradley said. “I mean, that’s great to have, but it’s also the arm length and the strength at the line of scrimmage. In order to do that, you have to have some size. And he can run.”
“I thought I put in enough hard work to get drafted at that spot,” said Gratz, whose eight career interceptions included one against Oklahoma in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl. “I’ve always been an underdog since I’ve been playing this game. That’s not a problem for me. It’s going to make me work harder and make me be a better player and person.”
Gratz began playing football at age 7 and was a running back until he got to high school. Although he wasn’t built like Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers, that was the player whose physical style he admired most. Upon becoming a cornerback, he took that love for contact and applied it in a different way.
Brown believes that, compared to many cornerbacks coming out of college, Gratz has the tackling skills necessary to contribute right away.
“I think he’s a very sure tackler, gets people on the ground,” he said. “He’s a physical performer. And unlike some corners, he enjoys the physical part of the game.”
Bradley and new defensive coordinator Bob Babich will be counting on Gratz to contend for a starting spot that had been held for many years by Rasheen Mathis, one of several Jaguars who were released after last season. Gratz has inherited Mathis’ jersey number (27) but isn’t reading too much into that.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” he said. “It’s a new defense, and they brought me in hoping I can be that guy. And I’m going to show the coaches that I can be that guy. I’m going to do everything in my power to show them that.”
As the third-oldest of eight children, Gratz is also motivated by something that would appear to be in stark contrast to his ornery on-field demeanor. His mother, Wanda, hasn’t been able to work in about seven years because she has fibromyalgia, a common syndrome which causes body pain and tenderness in the joints, muscles, tendons and other soft tissue.
To make an immediate impact with the Jaguars would not only make his family proud but further solidify the high esteem to which his college coach holds him.
“He’s one of those guys you feel good about,” Brown said.