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December 28, 2012
Cave anchors Notre Dame offensive line
Penn High School freshmen football coach Keith O'Connell needed only one glance to know Braxston Cave would be a special player.
"There are only a few kids in 15 years I can remember having to look up to when they were freshmen," O'Connell said. "When you get at that level and I have to stand up and get a crick in my neck to look up at them, you know they're a significant size for a 14-year-old boy.
"Braxston's sheer size ... at that level, you're playing freshmen football, and at that point, he was 250 pounds and around 6-foot-1, maybe 6-2, and he was so aggressive. You can't coach that aggressiveness at that level. He could play offensive and defensive line without much of a break ever. He could dominate both sides of the line.
"You knew right then that he was going to be fun to watch over the next few years."
Cave, now 6-3 and 304 pounds, will anchor Notre Dame's offensive line at the center position as the No. 1 Fighting Irish (12-0) battle for a national championship against No. 2 Alabama (12-1) on Jan. 7.
Cave started playing center on the varsity as a high school sophomore.
"We had to talk Braxston out of playing defense," O'Connell said. "He wanted to play there. It's the Penn 'Wild Bunch' defense, the prestige of playing defense. Between his freshmen year and when he got to the varsity, he figured out he was going to be more needed and much more of a player on offense."
Cave started all 12 games for the Fighting Irish this season, and was a candidate for the Lombardi Award and the Outland Trophy. He was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, an award for the top center in college football, won by Alabama's Barrett Jones. Cave was a second-team All-American.
"For me, it's been a great experience, being close to home and around people I've known my whole life and who have supported me,'" said Cave. "This is really special. The recruiting class I came in with was the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. This is what we anticipated to do since the day we got on campus. It feels good to finally put everything together and be in this position."
Cave has maintained close ties to Penn throughout his Notre Dame career.
"Being from close to here, it's nice to get back and see all the people who helped me get to where I'm at," Cave said. "The guys on the (Notre Dame) team love to see the high school games. I talk about Penn all the time, so everybody wants to see what it's all about."
That connection to the Notre Dame program certainly has meant a lot to Penn.
"Our players love seeing guys like Manti Te'o and Michael Floyd on our sidelines," O'Connell said. "Braxston has been great to our program. He's come back and given the kids pep talks, he came to our homecoming pep rally. He's really remembered the program and given a lot back to it."
Fighting Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said Cave's understanding of Notre Dame football has served the Irish well.
"Braxston loves the game and loves Notre Dame," Hiestand said. "He goes out every day and tries to do the best he can for the university and the football team. He's a fifth-year player. He knows the guys and he knows the university. He understands how things work.
"He does a lot of things to help the younger guys. He uses his experience to guide the other guys in the right direction. When you've lived it and you've made good decisions, bad decisions, and you know what a guy is about to do, you can kind of foresee the future a little bit. That's where Braxston's leadership has been really valuable for the younger guys."
Hiestand said Cave worked hard to recover from a foot injury that cost him three games last season. The former Chicago Bears assistant coach said Cave's play this season has earned him plenty of attention from scouts for the upcoming NFL draft.
"Braxston will get a very good look," Hiestand said. "He's played a lot of football, and there's a lot of good film on him. They'll see him blocking good people. I think he'll have a good opportunity (to get drafted)."
Cave, though, is focused only on Alabama.
"Alabama's defense is outstanding," Cave said. "I think what really helps us is that our defense is outstanding. Going against those guys every day is really going to help prepare us."
Although Alabama is heavily favored, the Fighting Irish aren't fazed by the underdog role.
"We're used to being the underdog," Cave said. "We've been the underdog all year long. We're just going to continue going to work. It's an us-against-the-world mentality. We've taken that into every game, and it's worked out well for us."