Mountaineers' Braun taking position switch in stride
NEW YORK - The way Jeff Braun sees is it, moving from guard to center on short notice for the final game of his college football career is really no big deal.
In fact, he seems to rather relish the opportunity.
"I view it as a challenge,'' Braun said Thursday, just before a chilly practice at Fordham. "I'm excited, to be honest with you. It's an opportunity for me to show off another skill set.''
When West Virginia faces Syracuse Saturday afternoon in the Pinstripe Bowl, Braun will be making his 39th career start. He'll be playing in his 50th college game. But he will be making his first start at center and appearing at the position for the first time since some mop-up duty in 2009, when he was a redshirt freshman backup.
The 6-foot-5, 316-pound senior from Westminster, Md., was thrust into the job as the team's center when four-year starter Joey Madsen was declared academically ineligible. It is the second time in the last three WVU bowl games that Madsen has been ineligible because of his classroom work.
Braun and the team have known the change had to be made for more than a week. Braun said he worked at center in four of the five practices the team held in Morgantown last week. Pat Eger has assumed Braun's old position as the right guard.
Braun was a center as a senior in high school and has worked as a backup at the position throughout his five years at West Virginia.
"I played it in high school,'' Braun said. "And I've played it here my whole career kind of silently in practice. For me it's kind of like riding a bicycle. The snaps aren't a problem. I'm not even worried about that.''
So what does he worry about?
"Not much, to be honest with you,'' Braun said. "It's a little different in that you're on the ball now and I have the control to be able to slide the protection and stuff, but I've helped Joey with that all season. It's not like I'm going in here not having a game under my belt. It's just a little different perspective as far as where you're at.''
There is, however, one significant issue with the switch and that's the opponent. Syracuse might have more blitz packages and do a better job of disguising them than any team the Mountaineers have played. When the teams last faced each other, last season at the Carrier Dome, the Orange constantly pressured quarterback Geno Smith and won the game in a rout, 49-23.
It's the job of the offensive line, of course, to protect Smith from that pressure and against a team like Syracuse that means having to constantly change protection calls and slide the line toward where the pressure is. And it's the job of the center to make those line calls on every play.
"I think a lot of their defense is trying to confuse you,'' Braun said. "They try to disguise some things as far as where blitzes are coming from and they bring a lot of different guys from different places. We have to be ready for that. I have to be responsible for picking that up and sliding things to protect Geno.''
Braun has to be smart and if he does slide the protection he has to make sure it's to the right spot. The problem against Syracuse is that the right way is not always obvious.
"They're very random,'' Braun said. "They don't have many tendencies.''
Fortunately, Braun does have some experience around him. Left guard Josh Jenkins is a senior who has started 36 games and Eger has started 18, although all were at tackle and not guard.
"The biggest difference is that at guard I could see better,'' Braun said. "I was back off the ball and sometimes I could get my head up. At center you're on the ball and it's harder to see everything. But I've got the help of Josh, who's a vet, and Pat, who knows what's going on. I think we should be just fine.''
Judging by Thursday's practice, there will be another change on the line in addition to Braun at center and Eger at guard. Nick Kindler lined up as the starting right tackle instead of Curtis Feigt. When Eger was replaced at right tackle after starting the first six games, Kindler took his place for one game before being replaced by Feigt for the last five.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.