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Braun becomes center of attention

Jeff Braun explained the sleeveless undershirt he wore amid the sub-freezing windchill at Thursday’s practice.

“I’ve got to get ready for Saturday,” he said.

Acclimating to the blustery cold was one matter, but the bare-armed Braun had a far more important mission as West Virginia worked out at Fordham University: Preparing for his first start at center since high school.

The fifth-year senior didn’t foresee a position switch in his final college game, but then fellow senior Joe Madsen became a ghost last week when fall-semester grades were released. Now, it’s Braun who’ll be snapping the ball when West Virginia (7-5) faces Syracuse (7-5) in Saturday’s frigid Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

With 38 career starts at guard, Braun literally has been Madsen’s right-hand man for the past three seasons, so by proxy he understands many of the pass-protection calls the center must make at the line of scrimmage.

Actually snapping the ball is the easy part.

“For me it was like riding a bike,” said Braun, who took over at center for four practices in Morgantown once WVU became aware of Madsen’s academic troubles.

“I’m excited for it to be honest with you. It’s an opportunity to show off another skill set.” — Jeff Braun on shifting to center for the Pinstripe Bowl

Though fellow fifth-year senior John Bassler was listed as Madsen’s depth-chart backup all season, Braun apparently has been the contingency plan all along. He said he has been “playing center here my whole career kind of silently” — working on snaps in spare moments but rarely getting any live reps. The last time he saw game action at center? “Probably my redshirt freshman year in mop-up duty against ECU.”

The setting will be far more intense in the bowl game, especially against longtime rival Syracuse. Propped against a chain link fence at Fordham before Thursday’s practice, Braun sounded confident in his assignment.

“I’m excited for it to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to show off another skill set.”

Though Madsen manned the center spot for 50 of the past 51 games, Braun was quick to seize ownership of the position during the recent practices back on campus. Then again, with only seven full practices to convert, a rapid response was in order.

“I have to be able to slide the protection, but I helped Joey with that the whole season, so that’s nothing new to me,” Braun said.

He’s also aware of Syracuse’s diverse blitz packages, which he faced the past two seasons. Only now he’ll be the one working with Geno Smith to communicate the pass-blocking assignments in the frenzied seconds preceding each snap.

“They bring a lot of different guys from a lot of different places,” Braun said. “We have to be ready and I’ve got to be responsible to pick that up and protect Geno.”

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