After weeks of speculation, junior Alan Branch officially announced his intention to enter this year’s NFL Draft, forgoing his final year of eligibility at Michigan.

Sarah Royce

The All-American defensive tackle met with Michigan coach Lloyd Carr yesterday to share his decision before declaring himself eligible during a teleconference later in the afternoon.

Branch is projected to be a first-round draft pick.

“It’s always been a childhood dream for me,” Branch said. “Coach Carr, his reaction was kind of surprising to me. It seemed like he kind of knew what was coming. He was really supportive and didn’t try to change my mind or anything. He listened to me tell him and wished me all the luck.”

Questions about Branch’s future with the Wolverines loomed far before the Rose Bowl. But further speculation was fueled when some of his other highly touted teammates announced that they’d return to Michigan for their senior seasons.

Quarterback Chad Henne informed Carr the day after Michigan’s 42-39 loss to Ohio State that he’d be back in Ann Arbor next season, with Shawn Crable, Mike Hart and Jake Long following suit shortly after.

Branch refused to discuss the situation during Rose Bowl preparations and wouldn’t talk to media at all following the game itself.

He went to his home state of New Mexico after the Rose Bowl and stayed there until Sunday, when he returned to Ann Arbor. During his stay in New Mexico, Branch weighed his options with his immediate family, the only people who played a factor in his decision, according to Branch.

Yesterday, Branch informed reporters that he got his “grade” back from the NFL’s draft advisory board. Typically, juniors contemplating entering the NFL Draft are encouraged to ask for a projection of what their draft position will be if they do in fact go professional. Branch’s projection said he would likely be a middle-to-late first-round pick.

“That didn’t have that much pull in my decision, but made me more confident in my decision,” Branch said.

Many experts project Branch as a top-10 pick, with some promising reports placing him as one of the draft’s first five choices.

Regardless of where he goes, Branch hopes he’ll eventually be able to hang a diploma on one of the walls in his new house. Branch said he still plans to graduate from the University eventually. The general studies major, who did not enroll in classes this term, is two semesters away from graduating.

Aside from his conference with Carr, Branch said he spoke to a couple of his teammates about his decision, too. He specifically singled out Hart, who Branch said he is especially close with. Branch said Hart’s biggest concern following the defensive tackle’s decision was that the two wouldn’t get to spend time together once Branch leaves.

“It’s really difficult, that was one of the things that weighed heavily in my decision,”

Branch said. “I’ve really grown close to a lot of the guys on the team. We’re going to have friendships far from now. We’re really close.”

Branch collected 25 tackles (18 solo) during his junior campaign. He forced and recovered two fumbles and also intercepted a pass in Michigan’s game against Ohio State.

Although his numbers were far from gaudy, the 6-foot-6, 331-pounder’s ability to take on multiple defenders and give teammates open lanes to make tackles was one of the keys to Michigan’s top-ranked rushing defense.

Branch is yet to sign with an agent and said that was the next move on the agenda for him and his family. Should he have a change of heart, prospective early-entry draftees have until Jan. 15 to change their minds and return to school.

But all signs point to that not happening. And instead of returning next year in hopes of leaving with a championship ring, all Branch will be exiting Ann Arbor with will be fond memories.

“I was surprised how tough it was to make the decision to not come back for my last year,” Branch said. “Michigan has been a great place for me. I was a kid from New Mexico nobody knew about, but I was molded into the Michigan Man I am today.”

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