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Notre Dame center Braxston Cave has a mentality that can’t be taught

BraxstCave

Braxston Cave

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Updated: March 27, 2013 6:28AM



I have no idea if Notre Dame center Braxston Cave is a knee-bender or a waist-bender or if he has linear mobility or lateral agility or snap-and-step quickness or substantial pop or punch.

I have no idea what it means that he ran a 5.31 40-yard dash and had a 251/2-inch vertical at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last weekend.

But all you need is a TV or a season ticket to Notre Dame football games to know that Cave has one quality that commands NFL scouts to take a closer look at the entire package: the football gene.

At 6-3, 305 pounds, Cave has a knack for playing football. He has a football mentality — inherited from both his parents — that you can’t develop at a training academy or a weight room.

‘‘I just love the competition,’’ Cave said. ‘‘If you’re not beating up on someone, they’re beating up on you.’’

That mentality is a difficult trait to measure in the NFL draft — perhaps nowhere more than at center. Half of the 32 starting centers in the NFL last season were drafted in the fifth round or later or not at all — including nine of the 12 playoff starters and all four championship-game starters: the Ravens’ Matt Birk (sixth round, 1998), the 49ers’ Jonathan Goodwin (fifth round, 2002), the Patriots’ Ryan Wendell (undrafted) and the Falcons’ Todd McClure (seventh round, 1999).

Cave is rated the fifth- or sixth-best center in the draft and projected to be a mid-round pick. If you’re looking for an immediate starter, he might not be your guy. But if, say, your current starter is 33 years old and has 186 NFL games under his belt, and you’ve got an offensive line coach who’s an expert at developing mid-round draft picks, a prospect such as Cave might warrant a longer look.

For most of his time at Notre Dame, Cave modeled his game after former Irish center Jeff Faine, a 2003 first-round pick and 10-year NFL starter. But first-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand — the former Bears line coach under Lovie Smith — turned him on to Olin Kreutz last spring, and Cave was hooked.

Kreutz tutored Cave over game tapes at Notre Dame’s spring practice last year. And through Hiestand’s tapes and eyewitness recollections, Cave gained a healthy appreciation for the leadership and tenacity that made Kreutz a six-time Pro Bowl center.

‘‘Absolutely,’’ Cave said. ‘‘He’s not the biggest guy. But he gets after guys. He’s a very explosive player, and I like that. Easy guy to model your game after.’’

Hiestand said it’s unfair to compare Cave to Kreutz — whom Hiestand considers ‘‘one of the best centers to ever play the game.’’ But he acknowledged that Cave has the passion for the game and a similar dual personality — easy-going off the field, a nasty streak on it — that made Kreutz better than the third-round pick he was in 1998.

‘‘He’s a true gentleman off the field, but on the field, he enjoys mixing it up,’’ Hiestand said of Cave. ‘‘Some guys do it because that’s part of the job. Other guys really enjoy it. He’s one of those guys that really enjoys it.’’

‘‘Outside of football, I’m a pretty calm guy,’’ Cave said. ‘‘I like to hunt and fish and play golf. But once I put that helmet on.

‘‘My pops told me when I was young: ‘If you’re not going after somebody, they’re coming after you.’ So I’ve always played with that chip on my shoulder. I started playing football in the third grade, and I’ve been the same way ever since.’’

There’s no test to measure that quality — and how it might translate to NFL success — at the combine. It’s up to the NFL teams to figure that out.



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