For young offensive linemen such as Jeff Braun, it's one of the things that coaches drill into him on every repetition.
"It's something that's been pounded into my head ever since I moved to the offensive line," said Braun, a massive Maryland native who made the switch to guard after starting his WVU career on the defensive side of the ball. "It's just your first step, but Coach Johnson calls it that because it can make or break a play. It's your first step, and it's just about six inches, but it's so important because it sets up everything else. On it, you want to have a good base and balance and be pointed in the right direction."
Sounds simple, right? Well, it's not. Along with tasks such as remembering the snap count and the play call, and making the right read against adjusting defensive fronts right up until the snap, the fundamental of taking the correct first step can get lost in the shuffle.
"When I was starting out, I was taking too long of a step, and then I would have to make up for it," Braun said of his early struggles in mastering the initial step. I was wasting motion, and it was just not needed. When you do it right, it makes you quicker getting into a block."
One of the things that really helped Braun in correcting his technique was film study of practice sessions.
"That's where I could really see it," he explained. "One one play I wouldn't do it correctly and I'd be behind. On the next play, I'd get it and I'd get a great block. So that's something I have been working on a lot, and something that is key for me this summer."
While attention on summer workouts tends to focus on skill position players throwing and catching the ball, Braun believes that the work done by linemen is just as important.
"I think offensive line might be the hardest position to learn on the field. The quarterbacks have a lot to do, but we have to read the defense too, then go against guys that are often bigger and quicker than you on the defensive line. And the linebackers are just freakish athletes – guys out there that bench 500 pounds and run a 4.6. So you just have to get everything together, and make sure you have all the little things down.
During the summer, coaches aren't allowed to work with players on the field, so coaching becomes a matter of self-study. That, along with film review of spring practices and correct techniques, takes the place of Dave Johnson's scrutiny over the summer.
"On Wednesday, the offensive line gets together and works on all those things," Braun said. "We work on the step of champions, do board drills to make sure our footwork is good, and go through all of our blocking progressions. The older guys have really stepped up in helping us get better. During the spring, I worked with Selvish Capers a lot, because he was next to me on the line, and he is a guy I go to when I have a question. And if we're doing something wrong, they'll correct us and make sure we are doing the right things. They've just helped us refine what we're doing."
Braun also gets in position specific work during four-times per week sessions with WVU Strength and Conditioning Director Mike Joseph. Many of the exercises conducted during those times relate directly to movements that an offensive lineman makes during play.
"On Mondays and Thursdays right now, we have been doing lower body lifting and speed drills," Braun detailed. "On Tuesday it's upper body, and agility and conditioning. Then Friday is an overall day, with more agility work."
With Joseph settling into his program, Braun hasn't seen many changes in the lifting program during his second summer on the job, although there are some differences due to his position switch.
"Most of the weightlifting is pretty much the same, but there are some different things I'm doing since I moved to the offensive line," he explained. "For example, when we are doing agility work, the defensive line might practice a pass rush move, while the offensive line is working on getting into a pass set. That's the biggest difference – many of the things we do are position specific."
Another point of emphasis for the offensive line this spring and summer has been the development of a strong initial punch. While many view blocking as simply getting into a defender and impeding his movement, there's much more to it than that. With the strength and speed possessed by most defensive linemen, it's vital to put them back on their heels, or at least stop their momentum and make them regroup after initial contact. West Virginia's move to more passing this year also makes the punch vital, as it's the key to slowing or stopping pass rushers.
"We are working on the punch pad a lot," Braun said of the big targets that hang on a wall in the tunnel at Milan Puskar Stadium. "We are working on being stronger with it, but also with speed and accuracy. Coach Joseph worked on that with us over the winter a lot, and we're continuing that now. It's a huge thing. In high school, guys aren't that strong, and I was able to just get into a guy's chest and block him. But in college, with how big and fast everyone is, you have to be able to deliver that punch. It knocks them off their feet or gets them off balance, and makes them think about what you are going to do. And if you can make them regroup, or get them thinking about another move, then you've won the battle."