Which is why Brignone says the summer program enforced by Coach Matt Balis isn't only or even mainly aimed at their physiques. "This has mostly been mental," he explains.
"Getting back in shape and training comes with the territory, but it's been a point with Coach Balis and the coaches to get us where running and stuff like that is second nature. That way when we get to the fourth quarter it's go and go and going and no stopping. You're not the team that's bent over, you're the team that is going and going and won't stop."
So, Brignone won't stop his work-day with just the scheduled lifting or running, or both, session set by Balis. He'll head on out to the practice fields for some unsupervised stuff and do…say now. Exactly what DOES an offensive lineman do out there? It's simple enough to discuss what quarterbacks and runners/receivers do in simulating plays and patterns. Even defensive backs can exercise their individual moves in mock—and sometimes mocking—coverage. Defensive linemen can do imaginary pass-rushing or side-to-side support. And of course kickers can kick their cleats off any day they choose.
But blockers? How do Brignone and his line-mates ‘practice' for a standard blast-run? The center says there are ways.
"Basically after our workouts and on weekends we've been coming in as an offensive line and doing different drills together. Then some of us get together with some defensive linemen and go one-on-one, just to kind of get a little technique and stay fresh. Because you never want to lose that touch. You can do drills all day but it's not like going one-on-one against somebody."
In Brignone's case that somebody is most often senior tackle Kyle Love (featured earlier this week). "We've been working a lot together because I know I can make him better and I know he can definitely make me better." However, don't get the idea that these two big bodies are battering their, well, big bodies against each other in un-armored matchups. Oh, it would be fun…for a while.
And for all their friendship, Brignone admits it would be too tempting to take things too seriously if contact were allowed. "Well, nobody wants to lose!" he laughs. "It doesn't matter if it's one or two steps, you still have to do as much as you can do."
The interesting aspect of this summer, besides the mental intensity Balis and Mullen mandate, has been the shift in competitive emphasis. "It's changed to now we have individual points that have turned more into a competition between an offensive line and a d-line, by positions. So when we compete as an offensive line and get everybody competing up, that means we're competing with the defensive line to get everybody up. And then that changes to competing with the linebackers, and the linebackers competing with the receivers. I think that has got everybody the mentality to just get everything and go."
Oh, the coaching staff wants every Bulldog lifting and running to win, or at least not to lose. But where in spring work it was almost literally Dog-eat-Dog, now unit pride is pushed to the forefront. Brignone says that fundamentally football is still built on winning individual matchups.
"But, it's about eleven one-on-one matchups. That's what a lot of the stuff out here is about. If you win yours and take care of your business, and you know that your partner is going to take care of his business, then that should be twelve games right there."
Bold talk of course. But then this year the Bulldogs are allowed—encouraged, really—to talk, to think, to act boldly. Oh, some veterans like Brignone got an idea of what success means and feels like two seasons ago with eight wins and a Liberty Bowl championship. They earned the right to strut a bit…then lost it last fall.
Just don't think they are trying to get that feeling back, not exactly. "I think it's more of a change," says Brignone. "Because there is a different sort of, nowadays it's called a swagger. There was a different swagger then that it is now. You see these guys walking around and it's a kind of swagger that ‘you can't touch me'.
"And that's what you need in football. People say ‘oh, I can't stand cocky people'. Well, to me, if you're not cocky you don't think you're better than everybody else; and if you don't think you're better than anybody else then you're going to get beat up and down on the field." Well, now it's Brignone and mates who intend to do the beating for another sort of change. He says the 2009 offensive line has the right people in their proper places, as well as the internal competition provided by young talent and improved depth.
"I think now that we've got guys in positions they actually need to be in," says Brignone, who started all 12 games this year including one opening at left guard. "Coach (John) Hevesy knows what he's doing and he knows what guys need to be on the field, and he knows if you're not ready you're not going to play. He knows that if we don't think somebody is ready that they're not going to play.
"Because we want the best five guys on the field, to be the best. We want that offensive line to be the best out there and to me this offensive line could be one of the best in the country. We've got all the keys and all the tools, we just have to use them." Including a complete set of backups and then some at a few positions, as spring camp showed. "That's always a good thing because we've seen you never know when it's that time. When you say third-string or second-string the thing is you might be one play away from the next guy up there. Something can happen in a split-second, you may be on the bench drinking water and next thing you're sixty-plays deep."
For that matter Brignone is now two varsity years deep into his college career, after redshirting in 2006. "It's scary," he admits, "I can't believe I'm already a senior in school and a junior on the field." And, he adds, at the point where pro scouts start to pay serious attention to how he practices and plays. It's all well and good to be a Rimington Award nominee going into the junior season.
"But if I have any thoughts or chance of going to the NFL I need to get everything together. Technique has to be second nature…well, it should be first nature, where it's just me going on the field and playing football." And thinking football in a more intense way, as at center Brignone is, in his words, "basically like quarterback of the offensive line." So while doing all those individual drills in summer Brignone is also studying defenses. Entire defenses, that is, not just the big guys directly across the line of scrimmage from him or the middle linebackers. He is learning to pick up coverage clues, too. So what if chances to flatten a free safety are rare?
In this new spread offense, that might turn out to be the one unexpected downfield block the Bulldog center needs to make for a play to break the distance. Mostly, though, Brignone likes this scheme because it evens the matchup-odds for Bulldog blockers. "I would say the best thing about the spread is there's not nine people in the box!" he proclaims.
"We have more wide-open running ability with the new style because you can run and pass out of it. It's not the old school, it gives us a better chance of getting leverage on people and being able to play football."
Now, until it's time to play real football, Brignone will keep working in the summer program. He briefly drilled at 305 pounds but it felt, well, heavy, so now he's dropped a bit under 300 pounds. Though strength training is the obvious part, Bulldog linemen are also being literally stretched with flexibility training that allows them to put that muscle to best use in the hustle-bustle of trench battle. It's another aspect of becoming tougher of mind and body…not to mention wind, since in this offense the guys coming off the line might end up covering more ground than they're used to.
"Hopefully we'll be running 40- and 50-yards," says Brignone. "If we're getting long receptions and runs I'll be more than happy to run that far!"