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April 19, 2012

Cave works his way back

The news isn't that Braxston Cave won't play in the Blue-Gold Game this weekend. It's the fact Notre Dame's fifth-year senior center probably could.

After a foot injury ended Cave's season at Wake Forest last November, the surgery, one that involved two screws being inserted and later removed from the center's foot, seemed sure to keep him shelved until summer. Instead, Cave has practiced with the offense without contact, giving way to Mike Golic Jr. when the hitting picks up.

If holding Cave back felt necessary a month ago, now it just feels precautionary.

"Everything feels good. It's giving it that extra time to fully heal," Cave said. "Not doing anything live so far, I don't know how much (the spring game) would benefit. But if it's something they want me to do or need me to do, I'll be in there."

Kelly is so sure he doesn't want Cave in there on Saturday that he didn't even need to be asked about it to rule him out. But like his center, Notre Dame's head coach likes what he's seen from Cave during the past month and what that means for summer conditioning as the Irish line continues to evolve into a potential team strength.

Notre Dame will use the Blue-Gold Game to audition Golic and Nick Martin at the same time, as the pair fights it out for the right guard spot next to Cave. Golic should line up at center this weekend with Martin at right guard.

"I'm really, really pleased with Braxston Cave and his ability to move," Kelly said. "We probably could play him, but we don't need to. He's moved so well that we could probably give him the green light. It's really encouraging."

Even if he hasn't been able to practice full speed for new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, Cave seems to have connected with his new boss. During last Friday's coaching clinic, Cave, Golic, Zack Martin and Chris Watt all attended to help Hiestand with his demonstration.

Cave probably could have found an out for spending that afternoon with a few hundred high school coaches. He eagerly attended instead. That's probably a testament to Hiestand.

"Awesome, the whole group loves him," Cave said. "He's a motivator. Never has anything negative to say. He definitely just focused on pushing you to your peak. He's just a pure O-line guy, that's all he cares about."

If there's an upside to Cave's season-ending injury it's that it forced him to play for Hiestand at all. The center admitted he had a decision to make about returning for a fifth year or declaring for the NFL draft, at least until he went down at Wake Forest.

"Definitely there was going to be a decision, but the injury made it for me," Cave said. "I guess that's the way it was supposed to be."

That wasn't clear to Cave last November when he limped off the field in Winston-Salem, N.C., unsure what was supposed to come next. He pouted missing the season's final four games, at least as much as a 6-foot-3, 304-pound NFL prospect pouts. He called his parents most nights, getting talked back up for rehab. He felt guilty watching the Irish offense crater, scoring four touchdowns in the season's final three games.

Now, almost five months later, Cave feels like he's put nearly the full episode behind him. And he's done it faster than just about anybody expected.

"It's tough when your whole life surrounds football," Cave said. "I wish I could be out there. That's the hardest thing, it's standing back and watching. Everything happens for a reason."


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