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Sept. 28, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – When Brandon Braxton was first asked to consider moving from wide receiver to safety, one of the first people he talked to was his dad.
David Braxton knows a little bit about defensive football. He was a fine college player and a second-round draft pick who played six seasons as a linebacker in the NFL. Their conversation convinced his son it would be a good move for his career at Duke.
So Brandon talked things over with Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe and said if it would help the team, he would make the move. His education as a safety began in spring practice and he has been a starter in all of Duke’s games this season.
“I feel relatively settled in,” Braxton said. “I’m still learning week by week for sure. Certain things came more naturally than others. I’d make plays here and there but I’d also mess up a lot. The mistakes have definitely helped me learn to become a better safety.”
Braxton has made his presence felt with 28 tackles (17 solo and 11 assists), which are second on the team. His play has helped Duke take a 3-1 record into Saturday’s game at Wake Forest.
“I’m the quarterback of the defense,” he said about his role. “I’ve got to know all the checks, I’ve got to know formations and read my keys and be patient but also play fast.
“It’s a ton of fun. There’s always something going on. A lot is making sure I’m in the right place but it’s also running around and making plays, which I enjoy a lot.”
This is relatively new for Braxton, whose only previous experience on defense was playing safety briefly as a junior in high school. He was always a receiver and he wasn’t just a spare part going unused in Duke’s offense. In two seasons he caught 54 passes, including 40 in 2011. He also played on special teams, where he really caught the eye of Cutcliffe.
“Anybody that saw him cover kickoffs, cover punts, (saw that) he’s a natural tackler,” the coach said. “He has a nose for the ball, takes great angles to the football. And we need some athleticism, someone who could tackle in the open field, and Brandon can do that.
“This day and time with all of the bubble screens and spread formations, you’ve got to develop your secondary with people who can make plays in the open field and Brandon is one of those guys.”
After spending two years preparing for Braxton as a receiver, Wake Forest’s staff must deal with him on the other side of the ball.
“He’s a really good athlete, an aggressive, tough player,” said coach Jim Grobe. “Their defense is playing really good football; the back end of the secondary is playing really good. I think they hit a home run by moving him over to defense.”
The Blue Devils had a long game in a lopsided loss at nationally ranked Stanford but have played well defensively in their three wins.
“We can be as good as we want to be as long as we keep improving every week and playing hard,” Braxton said. “That’s the key for any defense, to have that motor and never give up on a play. As long as we keep doing that I think we can do really well this year.”
One of the things Braxton is most looking forward to is making his first interception. And he’ll know what to do with the ball when he gets it.
“I’m waiting for it,” he said. “Eventually it will happen and I’ll probably be pretty excited about it. That’s where a little bit of the offense comes in.”
The veterans in Duke’s secondary have helped with Braxton’s adjustment and let him know how important his position is. Braxton said he enjoys safety and wants to work hard to become as good as he can be there – which could be really good.
“I wish we would have done this move earlier, to be honest with you, because I think he can be outstanding,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s a 6-2 guy with good size and strength, (and he) can run. Everything that’s happening to him this year is basically happening for the first time. He’s playing really well but what he’s doing better than anything else is he’s tackling really well, and he’s making big plays at critical times for us.”
This week’s game is vital to the Blue Devils for a number of reasons. A win would put them closer to the total of six they need to become eligible for a bowl. It would break a 12-year losing streak to the Deacons.
And it would hang a loss on his dad’s alma mater.
David Braxton played defensive end for the Deacons from 1986-88. He would have liked for his son to have gone there, but Wake got into the recruiting process late and Brandon chose Duke instead.
Brandon doesn’t know a lot about David’s career, other than what his dad has told him.
“He played outside linebacker, he was big, he was fast, he could cover people, he was a pretty good hitter,” Brandon said. “I’m just going off stories that he told me. He could be hyping himself up, I don’t know.”
Braxton’s move to defense has strengthened the bond between them.
“We talk and he watches all my games,” Brandon said. “He’ll tell me little tricks of the trade which I try to put in during the practice week so I can do them on the field. They definitely help.”
Probably no one has enjoyed Brandon’s position switch than his father.
“He was playing receiver, which I could not help him with,” David Braxton said. “So when he went over to the ‘dark side’ it was pretty nice. We can have conversations, we can go over schemes and everything else. It really helps us get a little bit closer because now we have the same mindset when it comes to playing football. So it’s been fun.”
One of those conversations came after the game against NC Central. David Braxton, who lives in Charlotte, paid a visit to Durham and the two talked about playing safety. It paid an immediate dividend in the next game against Memphis when Brandon recorded eight tackles, including one for a loss, in the Blue Devils’ 38-14 win.
“Since he moved over, I’m going to say last week was the first week everything started gelling for him, where he was starting to get a feel for schemes,” David Braxton said. “He was just playing football and not thinking. Any way I can help him, I’m there.”
With his keen eye, David Braxton can see some things that still need some work, like Brandon keeping his eyes on the quarterback’s helmet when he’s playing zone. But he is confident his son will be fine in the long run.
“He’s pretty athletic and he’s all-academic ACC, so he picks up things very quickly,” David Braxton said. “That was one of his assets when he moved over, his ability to adapt and understand the defense with no problem. He has good technique and I’ve been trying to teach him how to play defense since he was 2, so he has an understanding of what it takes.”
As for this week, father and son say they keep things low key, although Brandon admits he might “talk a little junk” if Duke wins. But he understands his dad’s position.
“That’s his alma mater but I’m his son and he wants me to do the best that I can,” Brandon said. “He wants me to play well and he wants us to win.”
Now for the real test. When David Braxton enters the stadium at Wake Forest Saturday, what colors will he be wearing?
“It’s really hard, knowing that he plays for Duke and I went to Wake,” he said, “but I’m going to be there with a Duke hat on. At the end of the day I’ve got to support my son and I’m pretty happy to do that.
“My buddies are going to hate me, but ‘Go Duke.’”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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