national champs baby
Creeper Van Originals: Rockford vs. East Kentwood
Ben Braden is quite large, especially in comparison to his rather diminutive teammate
This week the van traveled to the west side of the state to see offensive tackle Ben Braden and Rockford take on East Kentwood in an OK Red division battle. Rockford got off to a slow start, allowing a fumble return for a touchdown on their first offensive snap of the game, but the Rams proceeded to reel off 41 straight points to close the game, winning 41-6. Braden—playing mostly at left tackle and exclusively taking snaps on offense—helped pave the way as Rockford tallied over 200 rushing yards before pulling their starters early in the fourth quarter. Highlights go here:
The first thing that stands out about Braden is, of course, his size—he's listed on the Rockford roster at 6'7", 319 pounds, and he looked every bit that big, standing out among a very large Ram offensive line. He doesn't appear to be carrying any bad weight, as evidenced by his surprising quickness for a player his size, and as they say, you can't teach size—Braden certainly passes the eyeball test when you're looking for a BCS-level offensive tackle prospect.
Along with Braden's size, his quick feet appear to be his best asset. Rockford pulled Braden on many of their running plays, and he's very fast in getting off the ball, through the hole, and into the second level, where he can ideally crush the poor linebacker standing in his way. While the latter part happened a couple times, there were several instances in which Braden simply did not find a man to block—I am by no means an expert on offensive line play, but it was disconcerting how many plays ended with him running five or ten yards downfield looking for someone to hit.
This brings me to my biggest point of concern about Braden—one that has been voiced elsewhere—and that's the lack of the proverbial 'mean streak'. In a game in which Braden regularly was called upon to pull and block linebackers, all of whom he outweighed by at least 100 pounds, I counted exactly two plays in which he put a defender on his backside. Against an overmatched team like East Kentwood, either Braden was taking it easy—which I don't think was the case—or he needs to work on developing a bit more aggressiveness in his play.
In the run game, I thought he was solid, but not as good as I expected. He was able to get playside of smaller defenders and seal them off a few times in impressive fashion, but he also didn't push the pile and knock guys around as much as one would expect from such a large, talented lineman.
Rockford only attempted nine passes in the game, and I'm pretty sure Braden was out of the game for a few of those, but in limited chances he had some ups and downs. On a couple passes, he was barely tested and able to shove aside any defensive lineman who dared get within his reach, and he did a nice job of getting off the line and staying relatively low in his stance—he appears to have the groundwork for some solid technique. Unfortunately, there were two plays in which he missed his assignment—one is included in the above video, in which he just let a rusher run free around the end and looks confused as to who he should block—and both ended with his quarterback under heavy pressure. This is his first year at left tackle and it appears he's still getting used to the new position.
Overall, I thought Braden showed why he's a Michigan recruit—his combination of size and quickness is really tough to match—but he's definitely a work-in-progress. While I haven't had the chance to see any of the other 2012 OL commits personally, I'd expect there are at least a couple who will be more ready to see the field if called upon next season or even in 2013. If Braden develops more of an edge and continues to work on technique, however, he could end up being an extremely good lineman at the next level—he's got the size to push guys around in a MANBALL scheme, the quickness and reach to develop into a very good pass-blocker, and he's already looking good on zone running plays.
Apologies for the lack of action shots, but by the time I realized I should be heading down to the field Braden's night was already over.
ACE: First of all, that was an impressive performance by the team today. How would you assess the team's performance and your individual performance?
BEN: I think as a team, I definitely have to commend the guys, we're always working as a team together and always trying to figure things out. Just like me and everybody else, we've always got to work on stuff individually, but team-wise we did pretty good.
ACE: Can you elaborate on your own performance?
BEN: It was alright. Like everybody else, you work as a team, and you've always got things you've got to work on for next week.
ACE: You were the first commit to Michigan this year. What's it been like seeing the recruiting class come together?
BEN: It's been very exciting. I'm definitely getting to know the rest of the teammates and everything and it's fun—it's great to get to know the guys and everything, and I'm looking forward to [playing with them].
ACE: Which recruits have you been in contact with?
BEN: Caleb Stacey, a little bit, but kind of just everybody. Juwan Lewis, a little bit, from Muskegon, and then just when I go to the games, when I see people—whether they're committed or just recruits—just talking with them.
ACE: Do you have any visits planned for the rest of the season?
BEN: Nothing official just yet. I'll probably go to the Purdue game or a couple more games.
ACE: There's a lot of offensive linemen committed, and possibly at least one more on the way. Michigan is a little thin on the offensive line next year. Are you ready to come in and play next year and where do you think you'd fit in on that line?
BEN: I'm just going to go in, work my hardest, and try to learn everything as best I can—just work with the guys and try to get in and gel with them.
ACE: If you were to assess your own game, what would you say are your strengths and what are your working on to get ready for the next level?
BEN: Strengths, you know everybody's got their strengths and weaknesses. I'm a little quicker than people [expect], but everybody's got their differences. [I'm working on] getting low, just the real basic stuff, keep working on my footwork, that kind of stuff.
There are two games this week in which Michigan recruits face off against each other, one being Sycamore (A.J. Williams) vs. Oak Hills (Caleb Stacey) in Cincinnati, the other Warren De La Salle (Shane Morris) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary's (James Ross). Considering Williams and Stacey both play on the offensive line, I haven't yet seen Sugar Shane in person, and OLSM is much closer than Cincinnati, I'm strongly leaning towards attending the latter game.