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The Fruitland football team is looking to get back to basics following a down year. For the Grizzlies that all starts on the offensive line.

Two years after an undefeated 3A state title season, Fruitland found itself with a rare losing record, as the Grizzlies found themselves finishing with a 5-6 record following a state quarterfinal loss to 3A Snake River Valley Conference rival Homedale.

“They kind of want to rewrite want to rewrite what happened last year,” Fruitland coach Ryan Tracy said about his team. “They had a lot of different things that took place, you could make up a lot of excuses why what happened happened last year. But our seniors aren’t about to do that, they’ve been working hard and they kind of want to change that direction we went last year.”

For a team that relies heavily on the Wing-T offense, getting a running game going will be a key for the turnaround. And the Grizzlies have the strength in having four All-Conference players returning on the line.

They will also be coached by a former NFL star.

Fruitland hired Jordan Gross, a 1998 graduate of the school, during the offseason to coach the offensive line. Gross spent 11 seasons playing for the Carolina Panthers and was selected to play in the Pro Bowl three times during his career.

“Now we haven’t had kids say ‘hey I want to play running back,’” Tracy said. “It seems like they all want to be linemen because they want to be with Jordan. Jordan is such a humble great person. He has those kids excited.”

Senior Weston Jeffries, a first-team All-3A Snake River Valley Conference player last year, will return to anchor the line at right tackle. Tracy said that Jeffries is as good as anyone the team has ever had at right tackle, including former Boise State player Garrett Larson. However, because of his 5-foot, 11-inch frame, Tracy say that Jeffries isn’t getting the NCAA Division I looks that Larson while at Fruitland.

“If he’s 6-5, he’s a Division I football player,” Tracy said. “He has all the tools to do that, it’s just he didn’t get blessed with the height of Garrett Larson. We’re super excited with him, he works harder than anyone in the weight room, he lives next door to me and you see him running all the time. At the end of the day, he’s just a great young man.”

The Grizzlies will get size from senior Greg Gissel, who Tracy said has bulked up to 6-4, 235 pounds after finishing second at state wrestling at 220 pounds in February. Gissel was a second-team selection on the defensive line last season. Mark Church and Aden Simmons return as honorable mention selections from the line.

Simmons, who played left tackle last year, could move to guard this season, and could possibly even get some opportunities at fullback.

Behind the experienced line, senior Dylan Stelling is expected to be the featured running back, but junior Alex Gonzalez is a player who Tracy said has been under the radar and poised for a big year.

“He’s super strong, he squatted 380 the other day and he benches over 300 pounds,” Tracy said of Gonzalez. “We are really excited about him. He’s a tremendous worker and a great kid. We say that our strength is our offensive line, because that’s what we have coming back and that’s what we know about. But I think these running backs are going to really surprise people as we get into the season.”

John Wustrow is the assistant sports editor of the Idaho Press. He is a Michigan native and a graduate of Indiana University.

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