Bragg, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound junior from Morgantown, W.Va., came to Marshall as a two-time All-State tight end at Morgantown High School. He helped his team to two state AAA titles while earning a spot on the prestigious North-South Football All-Star Game before reporting to Marshall to play tight end in 2004. Red-shirted his first season, Bragg earned a letter with the Herd as a red-shirt tight end in Head Coach Mark Snyder's first season at the helm in 2005, playing in seven games on special teams and as a reserve tight end. But then the tight end position began to get an influx of some big-time talent, and Bragg was asked to consider a new position.
"Yeah, you've got to roll with the motion," said Bragg. "Here, you are not playing the same football you grew up playing or even with the talent at the North-South game. Here, you are playing with top athletes that you have to be as good as or better than to play. The realization of changing positions from tight end began to hit me when Cody Slate came in here last year and ran a 4.4 (40-yard dash), and I'm running a 4.95, 5.0 flat, and I'm thinking, hey I need to do something else, so I welcomed the move to tackle in the spring. As far as the moves from tight end to offensive line to now defensive line, and I am playing both defensive end and tackle, it comes with a price and a responsibility I am willing to take on. Our defense will set the tone for this season while our offense will score the points. I like being on the defensive corps."
In his first day at defensive end on Monday, Bragg had a couple of quarterback pressures then picked off a pass from QB Brian Anderson and rumbled about 30 yards into the end zone. "Yeah, I've been here at tight end for two years, trying to learn from great teachers like, first, Coach Shane Miles and now Coach (Phil) Ratliff. He's done a great job. Last spring, they came to me to see if I would move to offensive tackle." Marshall had three tight ends for the spring, senior Brian Shope, one of the team's top blockers; sophomore Cody Slate, who was All-Conference USA and led all league tight ends in receptions; and transfer Lee Smith, a former four-star recruit who had originally signed with Tennessee. "Coming from tight end, and having never having played on the offensive line in my career, it's a whole different world. This year, the coaches then went and recruited a whole bunch of talented freshmen linemen, and last year, too. The coaches are doing a great job recruiting, bringing in key players from Florida and big states that have a lot of talent. Being a small town, country boy from West Virginia, like myself, it's just a gift and honor to even be here.
"Monday, Coach Snyder comes to me with a white jersey and said, 'How about trying defense.' That excited me. I called my Mom and everyone else when I got out of practice, and had an opportunity to play D-end, just like I did in high school when we played both ways. I have those two years left and now God has put me in a position where I might go and knock down a quarterback or two." As a former tight end and tackle, Bragg thinks that might give him an advantage the other defenders might not have. "You are there for three years, learning the right steps to take as a tight end or tackle, the calls, so I should know what they are going to do. If they step away from you, you've got to get away from them to cut a play off that may be coming right behind them. I may not do the best job in the world, but I will go out there and throw my weight around and knock some people on the ground. Defense is easier (compared to learning the offensive scheme at Marshall), but in my position at defensive end, you have got to think. If God gives me the opportunity to play at Miami or against West Virgina and the rest of the games, I'll be playing hard."
While the Herd is concentrating on the opener at Miami with the Hurricanes on September 1, the West Virginia home opener at the Joan C. Edwards Stadium on September 8 will obviously be big for the Morgantown native. "I think I'm more excited about the fact this stadium will be filled. That's one thing I've discussed with many people, is for Marshall to have a fan base that we used to have and pack that stadium, maybe even pressure the administration to add more seats to the stadium. We've won more games in the past ten years than any other Division I program and the goal of the seniors and everyone on this team is in the next five years to put this program back on the map and be a team to be reckoned with. I want to fill that stadium with Green and White, with a little section of Blue and Gold. A lot of people have bought tickets and now, I'm getting calls every day for tickets from everybody.
"But as far as that game, the first game with Miami is the one that's important. We want to start off on the right foot. It's going to be hot. I know on my first trip to Orlando to play UCF, for a boy who had never seen the beach in his life, it was really hot down there. I'm really looking forward to going to Miami, another new place, and that is certainly one opportunity Marshall has given me. I get to go to states I've never been to and to meet new people and play teams I've heard about since I was young. As far as the Miami Hurricanes, they are going to be tough. They have been a force to reckon with for years, but our team knows we have the talent that allows us to play with anybody. That's been proven since I've been here, in games at Ohio State or at Georgia. I was at the Georgia game as a freshman, on my first trip." The Herd lost at No. 9 Ohio State, 25-21, on a game-ending long field goal, then lost at No. 3 Georgia, 13-3, in Athens in 2004. Marshall was close at halftime at No. 3 Virginia Tech in 2005 and last year held Tennessee in check until the fourth quarter in Knoxville.
While some players might have been frustrated with a third move of position in less than a calendar year, Bragg looks at each move as a new challenge. "Coming in, I came as a tight end and tried my trade at that. The old saying is a man of many tradess and master of none," said Bragg of his moves from position to position. He hopes to have found a home at defensive end. "I always liked the defensive side because there is only one thing on your mind, to get the ball carrier on the ground. It's not as complex as the offense, although you have to think, plus there you get to throw your weight around a little bit more. One thing I have accomplished at Marshall is to gain a pound here or there." Bragg reported at about 240-pounds as a freshman. "I really enjoy defense, and coach is really helping me out." The defensive line coach for the Herd is Thielen Smith. "Coach Smith is a great coach and has been, with me, from day one. He and I talked in the hallway in the past, and what not, when I was at tight end and I told him I'd like to play defense. I've got two full seasons left to play and I want to make the best of them as they come. In two days, Coach Smith has taught me half of what these other players (the freshmen) have had to learn over the past two weeks, that proves he's a good coach. I'm really enjoying defense, it's a new challenge."
Bragg has had an opportunity to face move challenges in his life than changing positions on a football field. In his hometown, he has worked as a volunteer firefighter and seen up close and personal the tragedy that life can visit on people. He was able to take that experience and use it in a constructive way this summer in helping him to work on his degree. "This summer, I got a chance to begin working on my life after football. I started an internship with the City of Huntington at the fire station, at the Fire Marshall's office, for a class." Bragg is majoring in criminal justice. He is also a volunteer fireman back home for the Clinton District Volunteer Fird Department and the Monongalia County Brush Fire Team. "With my background as a firefighter, and seeing the things I have in that, I got into investigating fires, finding the origin of and cause determination of fires, for a company here in Huntington called Ellis and Associates. Steve Ellis, he's like a second father to me. He's taken me in because I don't get home very often. This summer, we investigated ten fires and it's quite an of experience.
"You really realize when you walk into a house that is burnt down you've got a guy who has worked his whole life, came out of high school, went into the mines or some other job and he turns around and he's lost his home. It makes you realize what an opportunity God has given you to come to college and play college football. It's a perspective not everyone has and I think that's one of the problems with college football players today. They don't realize and know what they have in a college scholarship. I sometimes wonder, is all of this work for college and football worth it, but then I go back to some of the things I've seen as a firefighter and this summer, and it really opens your eyes to cherish what you have. College football has allowed me to get an education, to get out on my own. It really pleases me when I can call home and say, I'm doing fine, I've got all my bills paid.
"It's not just football that has kept me at Marshall, it's the reality of there is a harder life out there. There's always someone losing something. My Dad worked everyday, and that's what has kept me here working hard. The day I can stand up at the end of my career and say I left it all here, but still it will have given me more back and I will be able to say I was proud to play football for Marshall University."
Whatever football, or life, throws at Joe Bragg, it seems he will answer the call and do the job to the best of his ability.