Laying the Foundation - Senior Duane Brown Anchors the Offensive Line
By Mike DeVine
Originally published Sept. 29, 2007 in the UNC game programThe label "skill player" is a popular term used to describe football players like Eddie Royal and Branden Ore, who consistently handle the ball and put points on the scoreboard. However, the guys in the receiving corps are not the only members of the Virginia Tech offense who display athleticism. Even though their efforts usually only get noticed when the team is not moving the ball, the offensive linemen blocking in the trenches for the skill players have a great deal of athletic ability, as well. Take Tech's fifth-year senior left tackle Duane Brown, whom many claim is one of the best athletes on the roster. If his personal-best 4.7 40-yard dash is not enough evidence, Brown has played three different positions, in addition to consistent duty on the punt and field goal teams. "The main thing is athletic ability," Brown said. "I came in as a tight end, so I've always been able to move pretty well and that's the most important thing you have to have at that position. You have to be able to move at left tackle, too, because the guys you play against are pretty fast. Our quarterback can't see anyone coming on his blind side so I have to be able to sit him down back there. It also helps in the running game because I can get to linebackers when everyone flies to the ball and you have to keep up." Brown's first switch, from tight end to right tackle early in the 2005 preseason camp, was not made to merely show off the Richmond, Va., native's athletic prowess, but to match up better with the opponent. "Starting at right tackle was pretty tough for me at first," Brown said. "They moved me before the NC State game because of Mario Williams. He was a pretty good D-end and a pretty big guy, weighing about 290 pounds. That was my first game and I only had a week and a half to prepare for it, so I was just learning as the season went on. Fortunately, there were a lot of senior leaders in that group so they got me through it." Brown did much more than 'get through' his debut at right tackle. He did not allow a tackle for loss or a quarterback hurry to Williams, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, and helped the Hokies open the season with a 20-16 victory in Raleigh, N.C. Brown went on to start the next 12 games that season and was on the field for 673 offensive snaps. "The biggest adjustment I had to make was just getting used to the size of the guys I was going against," Brown said. "When you're a tight end, you're not asked to block a defensive lineman too much and you're running routes. I just had to get bigger and stronger. I had a tough time gaining weight at first, but it hasn't been a problem recently." Brown has bulked up to 308 pounds for his senior season and is still negotiating his role on the special teams with the new frame, especially earlier in the season when temperatures were sweltering. "You don't see a starting offensive lineman on the punt team too often," Brown said. "I enjoy it because I get to display my speed every now and then. The East Carolina game was my first game at my current weight so I felt the effects of it. It wore on me that game, but I'm learning to play with it and trying to get in better shape." Brown was asked by the coaching staff to make another position change in the offseason, this time from right to left tackle to protect the quarterback's blind side. "It was a little difficult, changing from right to left tackle," Brown said. "I was comfortable over on the right side. The footwork and the technique for each side are a little different and now I'm also accountable for the blind side of the quarterback, so there's more responsibility." Similar to his debut at right tackle, the veteran was pleased with his performance against ECU in his first game on the left side, but still realizes a lot of work lies ahead. "I've had my first game and have had a chance to get my feet wet," he said. "It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but I definitely have to keep improving as the season goes on." So what was the biggest adjustment he had to make to move from tight end to offensive line? "In our offense, it was more of a physical change because the tight ends work with the tackles a lot in our blocking schemes," Brown said. "I already knew most of the tackle's assignments when I moved from tight end, so it was just a matter of getting the footwork down and learning how to punch in pass protection." If Hokie fans believe shifting from tight end into the interior offensive line is not that big of an accomplishment, don't tell Brown. "It's really an underrated move," he said. "On this level, it's difficult going from catching passes to blocking 300-pound guys every play. It's tough because there are some very good D-ends out there that I have to go against every week, especially in the ACC." With the success of tight end Sam Wheeler in the season opener against East Carolina, leading the team with 81 yards on seven receptions and a 21-yard touchdown catch, one could not blame a player for looking back at leaving that position with at least some regret, but Brown has moved past that. "I don't regret moving to the O-Line anymore," he said. "I did for a while when I was younger, just seeing guys catch passes and score touchdowns, because you miss that glory. Fortunately, I grew to understand how important the offensive line is to the team. You can't have a successful offense without the offensive line because we're the foundation." Brown's physical contributions to Tech's success on the field only tell half of the story. His willingness to share knowledge and guide less-experienced players on Tech's offense has been invaluable. "Changing positions a few times has helped me become a leader on the team because I have seen all of the different parts of the offense," Brown said. "Knowing what everyone is doing helps you gain respect of teammates, because any time a tight end lines up beside me and doesn't have an idea of what the play is or what to do, it's up to me to help them out and give them an assignment check." Even though he is already an accomplished athlete and has a very high 'football IQ' at his disposal, Brown's reputation as one of the hardest-working players in practice every day is the trait teammates and coaches admire most. "He's the only senior we have on the offensive line and he's taken that responsibility," praised second-year offensive line coach Curt Newsome. "His practice habits are great and that is the main reason for his great leadership ability." His "coach on the field" role and exceptional practice habits have helped him form a unique bond with Newsome. "Duane and I are very close," Newsome said. "He's done everything I've asked him to do. Even in last year's group, they looked to him to lead. We've had a good relationship since the day I got here and I know that it will continue once he graduates." Brown is hardly the only Tech offensive lineman who has laid the team's foundation for success with often-unheralded versatility. Sophomore starting right guard, and Newnan, Ga., native Sergio Render is a combination of physicality and passion. Through two games, the 310-pounder led the group with 12 knockdown blocks. "I bring strength and I'm very physical," Render said. "I'm pretty quick for a guy my size, and I just love the game of football." Redshirt sophomore and Richmond, Va., native Richard Graham started the first two games of the season at left guard with Matt Welsh, a redshirt junior from Clifton, Va., spelling him. Both have earned respect for their grit. "They're both very aggressive," Brown said. "They're not the biggest or strongest guys, but they give 115 percent." Ryan Shuman anchors the line at center and is entrusted with identifying the middle linebacker before each snap. "I have to set the 'mike' because the whole blocking scheme revolves around one guy," Shuman said. "Basically, all of their secondary calls are based on what I call out." The redshirt junior from Fork Union, Va., uses his 314-pound frame to his advantage. "I'm bigger than most centers but I can move to get outside while being physical at the point of attack," he said. Redshirt sophomore Ed Wang was slated to start opposite Brown at right tackle before breaking his left ankle in preseason practice, but could return later in the season. Nick Marshman has filled in admirably and has made many position changes as well, shifting from guard to tackle, tackle to guard, then back to tackle over his career. He is noted by Brown for his sheer size. "(Marshman) is another great athlete on our offensive line," Brown said. "He's 357 pounds, but very nimble on his feet." Newsome recognizes the potential in this group but realizes only one thing matters in the end. "We know we need to improve because we're all about productivity," Newsome said. "We've got a group that I really like and they work hard. We have some fighters, but we just have to improve each week and show that we can run the ball up front."