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August 30, 2011

Cave has the combination

Braxston Cave spent last season in a state of certainty even if he wasn’t always right.

Tasked with snapping Notre Dame’s spread offense into action while making his opening career starts, the local product of Penn High School made a season of blocking first and asking questions later. And Cave had a lot of questions, but asking them in the middle of trench warfare wasn’t the time for schematic reflection.

“I think last year I was trying to be too perfect,” Cave said. “Now I know how guys are going to react in different situations so I’m able to fire off and be more physical. I think that’s probably the biggest part that’s changed for me.”

That evolution showed late last season as Cave began to master combination blocks, when he’d team with a guard to seal a defensive lineman, then move to a linebacker. When asked to go one-on-one with a defensive tackle, Cave had no trouble holding his own. When asked to read and react to stunts and slants, Cave didn’t always process the front.

As Cave got more comfortable with combination blocking it’s no coincidence the ground game ticked up. As much as a commitment to running the football from Brian Kelly helped, so did a center capable of carrying out those marching orders.

After averaging 113 yards rushing in the season’s first nine games, Notre Dame jumped to 156 yards rushing in the final four.

“His technique has gotten better because now he’s not thinking about what he’s doing, he’s thinking about how he’s doing it,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “That’s making him a better player. He’s very strong, very aggressive, a physical kid. With improved technique, with improved knowledge of what he’s doing, more confidence, he’s played really well.

“He has improved probably as much as anybody in our offensive line of the five guys.”

If experience powered that improvement, working with Paul Longo coordinated it. Cave admitted he’d become muscle-bound during his Notre Dame career, too focused on max lifts instead of workouts tailored to actually blocking people.

Cave’s weight hasn’t changed from last season at 303 pounds, but he said he’s dropped eight percent body fat over the past four years while adding flexibility. He believes four years of yoga are starting to show in addition to Longo’s more scientific lifting routines.

Longo employs full-body platform lifts that require balance and coordination as much as brute strength.

“Coach Longo’s big quote is ‘Less cargo, more horsepower,” Cave said. “I was never good at that kind of stuff, I barely did it in high school. My technique was horrible when I first got here. Taking the time to focus in on it really helped. Flexibility is huge and I didn’t have any of it.”

With customized strength for Kelly’s spread offense and experience in it, Notre Dame expects its starting center to do more than take up space this fall. A year into his second college career, Cave believes he’s more than a center designed to maul defensive linemen. The senior is confident he can read and react to them too.

Notre Dame needs that graduate level play in the pivot.

“It’s not like high school when a defender’s going to pick a spot and go there,” Cave said. “Everyone’s moving now. That was an adjustment I had to get used to. Until you actually play in games and get that experience, you don’t feel it the same.

“I look at tape from where I was at the beginning of the year to the end, I feel I was a completely different person.”

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