TCU center started late, learned fast

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Before center Jake Kirkpatrick could contemplate starting for an undefeated TCU team against Boise State in Monday's Fiesta Bowl, he was just a private school basketball player hoping for a chance to play big-time high school football.

That was why he walked into the weight room at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, in the spring of 2005, before his senior year, and announced that he wanted to play for the defending state champion football team.

Gary Fleet, Lee's offensive line coach and running game coordinator, was among several coaches who immediately chuckled.

"He hadn't even played football -- not a down," Fleet said. "We'd seen him on TV in basketball, but going from a small, private school in basketball to 5A football is a huge jump."

But moments later, the laughter turned to amazement. Kirkpatrick had walked in while the Lee players were doing weightlifting tests. He joined in and bench-pressed 285 pounds and outjumped most of the other players.

"It was unbelievable," Fleet said. "We all said, 'We can do something with him.' It was clear he was a gifted athlete."

One who had always dreamed of playing high school football, but couldn't. Grace Community School in Tyler didn't have a football team. Kirkpatrick played basketball and baseball, but it wasn't enough. So he decided to transfer to Lee in time to go through spring practice in preparation for his one and only season of high school football.

The decision changed Kirkpatrick's future -- on and off the field.

On the field, the first question was where to play him. Kirkpatrick's rare combination of size and athleticism made the possibilities numerous. Alan Johnston, Lee's basketball coach, was convinced Kirkpatrick could be a tight end with his good hands, or even a quarterback, as accurately as he passed the ball around the basketball court.

"He could have played nearly anywhere," Johnston said. "We had an end-of-game play that required throwing the ball the length of the court off the backboard. It's a shame that we never got to use it, because he's the only player I've ever had that could do it consistently."

The football coaches finally decided on the offensive line, an area clearly in need of some help.

"We put him at left tackle, and he picked it up quickly," Fleet said. "He wasn't real physical and was a little hesitant at first. But as the season went on, he got more and more physical. We were thin on the line, and he was like something dropped from heaven."

By the time Lee got to district play, the coaching staff said it was clear Kirkpatrick was a special player on the line.

"To play that position, you have to be a great pass protector, and he was," Fleet said. "Guys were getting past him and to the quarterback. He just got better every single game. If we had him for three years, there's no telling how many offers he would have received."

As Kirkpatrick tried to learn a new sport and make some new friends, he met Callie Mason. She was a cheerleader at Lee and flirted with Kirkpatrick, hoping he'd ask her out.

"He finally asked for my number after two months," Mason said. "We went on one date and never separated."

Both ended up at TCU after Kirkpatrick chose the Horned Frogs over Tulsa, the only other Division I school to offer him a scholarship. The couple got married in June. Many TCU football players attended the ceremony. Quarterback Andy Dalton and tight end Evan Frosch were groomsmen. Nose tackle Henry Niutei even sang as Callie walked down the aisle. Kirkpatrick is the only married player on the TCU football team.

Before he arrived in Fort Worth, Kirkpatrick wowed the TCU coaches with his athleticism on the basketball court. Fleet likes to tell the story of TCU offensive line coach Eddie Williamson coming to one of Kirkpatrick's basketball games for a recruiting visit.

"Jake was playing guard and went behind his back and slammed the ball," Fleet said. "[Williamson] said, 'We're offering him tonight.' He picked up his phone right there and called Coach [Gary] Patterson and told him, 'You won't believe this.' I kept telling everybody that somebody was going to get a sleeper."

TCU did. The staff moved the intelligent Kirkpatrick to center, hoping he could eventually replace Blake Schlueter, a seventh-round draft pick of the Broncos in 2009 and a critical component of a line that helped the Frogs reach No. 7 in last season's final polls.

Kirkpatrick, now 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, has exceeded nearly everyone's expectations. As a junior he's led an offensive line that has created holes for a productive running game and protected quarterback Andy Dalton, one of the most proficient passers in the country. Kirkpatrick wasn't even on the watch list for the Remington Award, but he ended up one of six finalists for the honor given to the top center in the country.

"We knew it was going to be important for him to be a player or we wouldn't have the success we've had," Patterson said. "Our center is very important to us. Jake works very hard at it. He watches film on his own and works out. Being married helps him stay focused on what he wants to accomplish."

For a guy who seems to be good at any sport he chooses, Kirkpatrick remains quiet and humble. He's quick to praise his teammates and give the credit to the coaching staff for teaching him the nuances of the game.

"He's kind of shy," said his wife, a journalism major at TCU and the unofficial "team mom" of the football team. "He's goofy when you get to know him. He's good at everything he does, but you would never know it by his attitude. If somebody does a good job, he's the first person to pat him on the back. He's a kindhearted person."

His high school basketball coach was impressed with Kirkpatrick's ability to be nice to everyone off the court but have the competitive streak necessary to win games and play at a high level.

"He's got the kind of character you want whether he's in your family, working for your business or playing on your team," Johnston said. "He's a class act with good character and values and he treats people right. He works hard and wants to be the best. I could see him going to the NFL. But he'll be a success at whatever he does."

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.