Years before he became an expert at delivering punishing trap blocks and forceful drive blocks, Georgia Tech left guard Parker Braun used to find his peace through daily runs of three to four miles through his neighborhood.
“Some days, I would listen to music and not think about anything,” Braun said. “And then other days, I would not take my iPod and just listen to the neighborhood, just some cars passing and birds and stuff.”
That was a middle-school passion. And it’s one Braun would like to return to when football is over, provided his knees retain their functionality. For now, the new pursuit provides its own pleasures, like a block in which he can barrel into defenders, a 280-pound package of force and leverage.
“I love the pressure behind your nose when you hit somebody,” Braun told the AJC. “You don’t really feel that in anything else that you do.”
Certainly not while running.
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“It’s like scratching an itch in your brain, kind of,” Braun said. “You know, like when you have to sneeze and your sinuses build up.”
Amid a disappointing season for Tech, Braun’s play has won him widespread admiration among the Yellow Jackets and across the ACC. The Jackets, who are off this weekend and return to play Thursday at Virginia Tech, have not been able to count on much.
But the junior from Kissimmee, Fla., has scratched his brain itch with regularity, driving back defensive tackles on runs up the middle and using the agility gained from his cross-country days to pull on runs to the perimeter and topple linebackers with cut blocks. His pass blocking may be developing – his grounding was in an option-style offense in high school, when his father, Mike, was his position coach – but he stands his ground and keeps his portion of the pocket secure for quarterback TaQuon Marshall.
“That guy is special,” Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said. “If any line in the country had five of those guys, they would win a ton of football games.”
Braun earned second-team All-ACC last season as a sophomore, and his play has only improved, which he credits to added muscle gained over the offseason and the benefit of experience gained through having started since the second half of his freshman season.
“He’s really physical and gets after it,” coach Paul Johnson said. “He’s been the most consistent guy there (on the offensive line).”
While his play-to-the-whistle style might suggest the temperament of a cocky brawler, it actually flows out of a young man who is tormented by doubts about his ability. When he executes a block properly, Braun said his feeling is not one of euphoria or satisfaction, but relief and a soothing answer to his self-criticism.
“Because, I don’t know, personally, I’m constantly plagued with doubts like, ‘You’re not a good player. You can’t do this. You can’t accomplish those things,’” Braun said. “So, when you accomplish a good block or have a good play, you can breathe and be like, OK, you can do this. Relax.”
Braun may be the only one with that conception of himself. Duke coach David Cutcliffe called Braun explosive, tough and tenacious and that “he stays after you the entire play, wire to wire.”
Johnson said he rates Braun among the top offensive linemen who have played for him at Tech, a group that includes All-American guards Omoregie Uzzi and Shaquille Mason. Johnson thinks that he’ll get drafted after his Tech career ends.
“He’s a little small, but I would think he’ll be impressive on tape when they watch him because he plays so hard,” Johnson said.
Braun’s game play reflects what happens on Tech’s practice fields.
“His energy level is high, his intensity level is always high,” center Jahaziel Lee said. “He has a motor out of this world.”
Braun has grown to embrace the toil of practice through knowledge gained in a psychology class at Tech, that smiling can affect one’s mood. The experiment, conducted with tackle Andrew Marshall, has livened the offensive-line unit and inspired a nickname-giving practice. (Braun’s is “Positive Parker.” Marshall’s is “Mustang Marshall” or “Adventure Andy.” The monikers can have a seasonal flavor, hence offensive tackle Zach “O’Lantern” Quinney.)
“He’s quite a character study for sure,” Braun’s older brother Trey, himself a former Tech guard, wrote in an email.
Despite his doubts, Braun was encouraged by his play in Tech’s 49-21 loss to Clemson against the Tigers’ cadre of future early-round draft picks. In a forgettable afternoon for the Jackets, Braun more than held his own, putting multiple defensive linemen on their backs and engaging with Clemson’s agile defenders in space and driving them backward.
“It was reassuring on the one hand,” Braun said, “but then it’s also frustrating, like, man, I can actually play with these guys – I wish we were winning.”
On his 60th snap of the game, with less than three minutes to play in the lopsided defeat, Braun got up off the turf from a cut-block try and, seeing that quarterback Tobias Oliver had broken free, sprinted to keep up with Oliver, looking for a defender to take out before tumbling over the pile when Oliver was brought down.
“I think it’s just the way I play, I guess,” Braun said. “Because if you’re going to do something, why not give it your all?”
Narduzzi, whose team played Tech prior to the Clemson game, likely would have appreciated the play. He said he told his players before the game that “you’d better watch out for that guy because he will block you every down. He’s not going to take a play off.”