When Alan Branch was a sophomore in high school, he weighed 280 pounds and ran a 4.9 40-yard dash.
Not exactly blink-and-you’ll-miss-him speed, but surprisingly fast for a man that big.
Branch’s quickness came in handy during his first two seasons as a Wolverine, when he split time between defensive tackle and defensive end. When Branch lined up outside, he could use speed moves to blow past blockers and get into the backfield. In 10 starts last year, Branch tallied five sacks and seven tackles for loss.
“If Alan Branch gets free up the middle, he’s definitely going to get a good hit on the quarterback,” senior co-captain LaMarr Woodley said. “He’s fast. When quarterbacks take off running, Branch is behind (them).”
This season, the junior is still going after the quarterback, but he hasn’t been able to show off his speed quite as much.
With the graduation of last year’s starting tackles, Pat Massey and Gabe Watson, Branch moved to tackle full-time before the season began. The switch meant Branch had to start using his muscle more than his motor.
“When you’re on the inside, you can’t really use speed moves that much because it leaves open lanes for the quarterback to scramble,” Branch said. “So I’m kind of forced to use power moves and try to get sacks that way.”
Branch said he still needs to adjust to not using speed moves all the time. But he doesn’t mind the change – as long as he keeps getting sacks.
If that’s the case, he must have been very happy with the switch on Saturday. Branch spent the first three quarters of the game drilling Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco just seconds after he released the ball, including one monster hit early in the second.
Then, just minutes into the fourth quarter, Branch powered past the Badgers’ offensive line and sacked Stocco for an eight-yard loss, his first sack of the season. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr called it the best game of Branch’s career.
“You can feel the power,” Carr said after the game. “He made a couple plays in the second half where he was a dominating physical force. He’s a big guy. He’s bigger than most offensive linemen.”
But Branch hasn’t always been as strong as the players he lines up against. Before coming to Michigan, the Albuquerque, N.M., native had never been a gym rat. In high school, he played running back and wide receiver, positions where brute strength isn’t as important.
Once he arrived in Ann Arbor, Branch soon realized his natural strength wasn’t going to cut it. In his first round of strength tests as a freshman, he lifted 225 pounds just 11 times. Smaller first-year players like wide receiver Doug Dutch completed more reps than Branch, who knew he had to “fix that real quick.”
This offseason, Branch finally did. In August, he said he had achieved his No. 1 goal over the summer: lifting weights and getting stronger. Newly bulked up, he can now finish at least 36 reps of 225 pounds.
Unlike many of his teammates who slimmed down in the offseason, Branch weighs 331 pounds, 20 more than last year – just the mass he needed to plug up the middle of Michigan’s defensive line.
Always his own biggest critic, Branch isn’t content with his play so far this season. He wants to see himself make more “great effort” plays to force fumbles and get sacks.
If Branch holds true to form, he’ll reach that goal in no time flat.