When GoBlueWolverine first observed Alan Branch in action at the Army All-American combine back in January of 2003, it was immediately clear that he had the athletic ability to considered one of the top prospects in the nation. Measuring in at 6-6 and 305 pounds, the still physically immature high school junior turned a number of heads with the surprising agility he displayed while working out at the tight end position. Though his place of residence (New Mexico) prevented him from ever garnering the national attention his talent deserved, the Michigan coaches knew that had spotted a gem of an athlete that could have an extremely bright future on the defensive line.
The Albuquerque native was one of the Maize and Blue's most consistent contributors in 2005. In his first season as a full time starter he racked up 31 tackles, seven for loss, five sacks, and three quarterback hurries while seeing time at both tackle and end. He turned in a fairly good year by most standards, but Branch knows that he has the talent to provide much more.
"I was upset that I missed a lot of sacks last year," he said. "Right now I'm working on sprinting to the ball and breaking down, but not stopping so the quarterback can go around. Right now my focus is, 'don't let the ball get away from me. 'At least get it down. Even if it's a yard past me, it's all right as long as I get the ball down."
One of the biggest keys to improvement for Branch is continuing to increase his strength. During his brief Michigan career he has already shown substantial improvement in that area.
"I've noticed it a lot," Branch said regarding the difference in his play now that he's stronger. "Before I don't think I was able to get off of blocks the way I am now. It was a rough transition at first. I never wanted to go in the weight room and see Mike (Gittleson) in there. Of course he is going to try to get one of the trainers to come lift me since I'm not up to par with my strength. But after a while I started getting into the groove. I like going into the weight room now. I like getting better. I try to get stronger with my upper body and everything."
The challenge issued Branch by Michigan's strength coach has made him a better player. This spring he and the rest of the defense were similarly challenged on the field by new defensive coordinator Ron English.
"There's no difference in the way we play, but there is difference intensity wise," said Branch. "Coach E is a very intense coach. He is going to light a spark under your butt to get you going. We've had really intense and physical practices that I've haven't experienced while I've been here. What's different? The way we go after the ball. The scheme that we attack the ball with. The mindset when we get to the ball…how we want to violently hit it attack it. Try to get the ball on the ground. It is really just the mental stimulation we've been experiencing. Coach E is a great motivator in that aspect."
In 2006, Branch will likely be attacking the ball from the interior of the defensive line as opposed to out on the end. Whatever the position, the junior lineman expects to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
"I don't care," said Branch regarding which position he'd like to play. "I just want to be on the field. Put the ball down and let me go at it. I really don't have a preference. I'll go anywhere. I like to think of myself as a smart football player. I might not be the brightest in the classroom, but if it comes to football I could tell you every single duty of the d-line for every single play we have. I just love the game that much. I like to see the scheme of what the coaches thinking. You could put me anywhere n the field and I'll learn it with the best of them."
With Branch at tackle, the Wolverines could field their most athletic front in quite some time. However, that doesn't necessarily mean they'd be the most effective. For that to happen the chemistry up front will have to improve as well. According to Branch, lack of cohesion was one of the reasons for the late game lapses last year.
"I think it's in the past now," he said. "Before, we never really played together. We weren't really confident in what the other was thinking and what we were about to do. I think that after the amount of time that we've played with each other, we've got a good idea of what's going on in each other's heads. I think that makes us that much stronger on the d-line."
For more on Woodley and the UM defense, be sure to check out GoBlueWolverine The Magazine.