Had Braxston Cave avoided a season-ending foot injury last season, the curtain likely would have closed on his Notre Dame career. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound center from nearby Mishawaka, Ind., would have been an attractive prospect at center in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Instead, Cave tore a ligament in the second quarter of a 24-17 win at Wake Forest on Nov. 5 and missed the final four games of the season. Senior Mike Golic Jr. filled in admirably the rest of the way, but Cave’s experience and brute strength were greatly missed ... almost as much as he missed being on the field.
“It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life, just because I had never had surgery before,” said Cave, who had screws inserted into his foot that were eventually removed in the offseason. “Being a starter and having to sit out and watch it, especially Senior Day, that was tough. I went through a lot of long talks with my parents. I’m glad that’s in the past. I’m looking forward to getting back out there.
“My biggest thing was try to help Mike and give him the experience I had. ... I was on the phone with my mom or dad every night for a couple hours, just trying to get my mind off of it. It’s tough when your whole life is surrounded by football and it’s taken away from you. Two or three weeks later you realize there’s nothing you can do about it. You try to find the positive in it; it happened for a reason.”
That reason, Cave thinks, was to bring him back for another season. He admitted that, had he continued to play at a high level, he would have had a tough decision to make.
“Definitely, there was going to be a decision,” he said. “But the injury made it for me. I guess that’s the way it was supposed to be.”
Cave was able to return to nearly full duty about two weeks ago. He says he’s in excellent shape and could participate in all drills if needed. For now, there’s no sense in risking re-injury, so he’s sitting out live work against the defense. His status for Saturday’s Blue-Gold game is up in the air, but he believes he’ll probably watch from the sideline.
But he’s making up for lost time. When players were brought in to talk with reporters Saturday, Cave was one of the last to arrive. He had yet to shower and was still breathing heavy.
“The biggest thing is just learning Coach [Harry] Hiestand’s techniques,” said Cave, who stayed after practice for a one-on-one session with the first-year Irish offensive line coach. “Those [other] guys got to get after that during the offseason, winter workouts and training. That’s something I kind of missed out on. Right now I’m just kind of playing catch-up as far as that goes.”
With a front-row view of the offensive line’s evolution, Cave feels the right side in particular is shaping up nicely. The left side remains intact with two-year starter Zack Martin (tackle) and returning starter Chris Watt at guard. Replacing graduated seniors Trevor Robinson (guard) and Taylor Dever (tackle) on the opposite side of Cave was the No. 1 goal entering spring practices.
“That’s going to play itself out,” Cave said. “Mike obviously has the experience. Nick is very athletic; Lombard is athletic. They all have great things, but it’s going to be who’s going to do something that sticks out to put themself over the top?”
Being back but still somewhat limited isn’t that bad, Cave, who’s been around for half a decade, added.
“It has its advantages ... a little less damage on the body,” he said. “... I’m kind of like the hype man now, just getting them going. I wish I could be out there; it’s the hardest thing standing back and watching. Everything happens for a reason.”