If you’ve been watching Alan Branch this season, chances are you’ve already formed some opinions.
You’ve probably noticed the way the defensive lineman has terrorized quarterbacks John Stocco, Drew Stanton and Bryan Cupito in Big Ten play. Seen him leap over fallen offensive lineman on his way to devastating tackles in the backfield. Maybe even clapped and cheered as he’s forced fumbles, hustled downfield in pursuit and dragged down some of the nation’s most talented running backs.
It would seem likely that Branch has been schooled since childhood in the nuances of playing on the defensive line. After all, for a sophomore to become a regular starter at both the tackle and end positions, pass-rushing and run-stuffing must have gone hand-in-hand with learning the alphabet and memorizing multiplication tables in Branch’s education, right? And certainly he’s a mean, nasty, no-nonsense type of guy, just what you’d expect from his style of play. It seems logical, no doubt.
But if you subscribed to these views concerning the Rio Rancho, N.M., native, you’d be pretty far off the mark. Because when it comes to Alan Branch, appearances can be deceiving.
Just a short five-minute drive from the Rio Grande, in Albuquerque, N.M., stands Cibola High School, home of the Cougars. Ben Shultz, the head football coach at Cibola, knew Branch was something special as early as the seventh grade. By the time Shultz became his coach, Branch had already grown to 6-foot-6 and well over 300 pounds. In addition to football, he has played soccer, baseball and basketball
“He was just a once-in-a-lifetime athlete,” Shultz says. “With his size and strength and speed and agility and footwork, he could do it all.”
And that’s exactly what Shultz pushed Branch to do. Everything. Simply playing on the line wouldn’t be enough. By the time Branch left Cibola for Ann Arbor, he had contributed from a dizzying array of positions. Sure, the gargantuan teenager played defensive end. But the laundry list of Branch’s responsibilities included roles most athletes his size would never dream of playing: linebacker; tight end; wide receiver; running back; kickoff and punt returner; even quarterback.
“He was so versatile, we could do anything with him,” Shultz says. “It really created problems for other teams. We (put Alan in unusual situations) just to mess with the other teams’ heads. They just didn’t know how to deal with him. We would put him back on punt returns and kickoff returns on purpose. You know, ‘Go ahead and try to bring this kid down.’ “
For the most part, the other teams couldn’t. Branch returned five punts for touchdowns during his high school career. He accumulated nearly 600 combined rushing and receiving yards as a senior alone. When he lined up in the backfield, Branch promised his coach five yards a carry.
“I told (Shultz) I could give him a guaranteed five yards every time,” Branch says. “Even if I got hit in the backfield, I just fell forward and got at least four.”
For his part, Shultz – now in his 13th season at Cibola – was thrilled to have such certainty in short-yardage situations. The Cougars already had a speed back, but Branch provided a change of pace. The bruiser was a smashing success, except for one memorable instance.
“In the state semifinal against Carlsbad his senior year, he went exactly four yards and about 11 1/2 inches,” Shultz said. “He was about a half-inch short of a first down that would’ve probably tied the ball game.”
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr remembers watching Branch’s recruiting tape. Carr stared in utter disbelief as the oversized running back sprinted down the field for a score.
“He is a very, very talented athlete,” Carr says. “I will never forget turning the film on of one of Alan’s high school games, and he was in the backfield. They gave him the ball, and I think he ran 65 yards.”
From the outset, it was clear to Carr that Alan Branch was a different type of football player.
Naturally, a high school running back the size of an NFL lineman caught the attention of college scouts around the country. Branch visited Michigan and Arizona State, where current Wolverines defensive backs coach Ron English had recently left his position mentoring the Sun Devils’ cornerbacks. He got offers from Colorado, Tennessee, Washington State and Texas Tech. Texas A&M even used a private plane on a recruiting trip to see the budding star. English worked hard to persuade Alan to come play for Michigan. He even sat down with the prospect during his junior year at Cibola to warn him of the importance of good grades.
“(School) was an area where Alan had to be pushed a little bit,” Shultz says. “I think the person who made the biggest impact on him was coach English. He sat Alan down and read him the riot act. He said, ‘If you ever even hope to go to Michigan, you have to get your crap together.’ From that point on, Alan was like a 3.5 student. Coach English did a world of good for Alan.”
David Branch, Alan’s father, was particularly moved by Carr’s personal visit to the family’s home in Rio Rancho. David – who grew up in Detroit and graduated from Northern High School along with his wife, Valarie, before playing college football at New Mexico with Shultz – had long admired Big Ten football.
“I think the deciding factor for us as a family was when coach Carr came down to visit us in our home and ate dinner with us,” David says. “That was very impressive, to have coach Carr in my home. Then he sat there and ate my dinner, so I was that much more impressed. We had a quite frank conversation with coach Carr, pretty forward and up-front. Of course, Alan wanted to know if he would have an opportunity to play. Everyone that’s competitive wants to get in there and see if they can help.”
When it came time to make a decision, David and Valarie left the choice to Alan.
“We kind of wanted Alan to go away,” says David, who served as defensive line coach at Cibola during Alan’s high school years. “I know it sounds kind of weird, but we felt that would give him an opportunity to grow up somewhat. We thought, with Alan being a high-profile athlete, he would be under a microscope (staying close to home). And my biggest fear, being an athlete myself, was realizing you’re dealing with a bunch of 18- to 20-something-year-olds. They’re going to make 18- to 20-something-year-old mistakes. I didn’t want his mistakes to be magnified that much more.”
Ultimately, Alan picked the Maize and Blue. He was one of just eight true freshman to see the field last year, and he played in every game. Would you honestly expect anything less from Mr. Everything?
But the gridiron isn’t the only arena in which Alan excels. David has recognized his son’s passion for working with children.
“As big as he is, Alan’s a gentle giant,” David says. “One of the things that I noticed during high school was that Alan was really good around children. I think that’s where he’s kind of leaning for his career after football. He would always go visit his elementary school teachers and they just love him. (But) those images don’t really fit together when you think about competitive Big Ten football and the individuals that participate in it.”
So maybe No. 80 isn’t quite as vicious as his countless hits on the turf make him seem to be. As it turns out, the man whose legendary high school tackles were likened to “body slams” by local newspapers is a bit softer when he’s not wearing a helmet and shoulder pads.
“He was just such a fun-loving, hard-working person,” Shultz says. “Nobody worked harder than Alan, nobody got the job done like Alan. He wasn’t a practical joker, but he liked to have fun.”
Shultz also remembers Alan’s appetite. After big wins, the coach’s wife would bake sugar cookies for the team. There was never any question which player would be the most frequent customer.
“Alan was always the first person in line for the cookies,” Shultz recalls. “And he’d always be the last one in line, too. My wife would make him extra. He was a big guy.”
Sugar cookies and working with children. Not your typical defensive lineman’s list of passions.
Branch began this season on the bench. After the loss to Notre Dame, Carr moved him into the starting lineup at defensive tackle. But after defensive ends Rondell Biggs and Jeremy Van Alstyne suffered injuries, Branch was forced to move to the outside against Minnesota. Still, the second-year player managed to record four tackles, including one in the backfield on stud Gopher rusher Laurence Maroney. He now has 12 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in his last three contests.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Branch – who still has weekly phone conversations with Gino Sattriano, his defensive coordinator at Cibola – has a work ethic and attitude that have rubbed off on his current teammates.
“He’s knowledgeable about the game,” defensive tackle Gabe Watson says. “He’s going to be a great, great player if he continues on the path he’s going on. He’s a humble guy and he doesn’t talk much, but he speaks a lot on the field.”
Linebacker David Harris has a different take. He claims Branch frequently reminds his fellow Wolverines of his past glory in the backfield.
“He gloats about it a little bit, but we all know the story behind it,” Harris says, pondering how he would try to tackle such a big ball-carrier. “I’d just have to go for his legs. If you go up high, you’re going to get run over.”
Prescott Burgess, another linebacker, ventures that he would be up to the challenge if Branch broke through the line with the ball cradled in his arm.
“I was kind of a hitter in high school, so I can imagine (trying to tackle him as a running back),” Burgess says. “We joke around with him, like, ‘What kind of league were you in?’ But with his ability, I believe he did play what he said he did. I’m just glad to play with him.”
The gratefulness Burgess feels for his relationship with Branch seems to be a common thread among all those who have come into contact with him.
Alan Branch might not be easy to categorize. It might prove impossible to confine him to a specific set of standards, on or off the football field. But one thing is certain: He’s not who you once thought he was.