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A Huge Year For Branch

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Defensive tackle Alan Branch (78) enters his third NFL season knowing he must prove he is worthy of playing time.

The traveling didn?t stop for Alan Branch. This time, though, neither did the workouts.

When the defensive tackle went to Miami, he ran on the beach. When he was in Los Angeles, he spent time at the boxing gym of famous trainer Freddie Roach. These were the efforts that weren?t there when he was on the road last offseason, when his weight became a major issue.

?I wasn?t in the quote-unquote ?doghouse,? but I wasn?t in the coaches? good graces (last season),? Branch said. ?They felt they couldn?t trust me because I couldn?t come back at the weight they wanted me to. That alone, I knew the weight was important. So even when I was having fun (this offseason), I knew at some point during the day I?d get a workout in.?

Branch said 2009 is ?huge? for him, although the irony was unintended. The 2007 second-round pick barely played in 2008 as he battled his weight and an inability to turn his raw talent into defensive snaps.  

Branch appeared in four games and was inactive in 14, including all four postseason games. For a guy who had started his whole life back to the time he was a 6 playing against 7- and 8-year-olds, the bench time ?killed me inside.?

It hasn?t helped the Cardinals, either, not after they traded up to draft the 6-foot-5 Branch ? who is officially listed on the roster at 332 pounds. Not surprisingly, coach Ken Whisenhunt acknowledges ?this is kind of the make-or-break year for him.?

And while Branch feels he has a ?clean slate? after last season, Whisenhunt will only agree to a point.

?As far as a completely clean slate, I don?t think that can ever happen, because you are bound by what you have shown your patterns to be,? Whisenhunt said. ?I am greatly encouraged he came in to the start of the offseason program lighter than what he has been in the past.?

Branch doesn?t get into the specifics of his weight, although in addition to coming in lighter, he said he was able to shave another five pounds off during the first week of voluntary workouts.

He understands where his career could be headed. Last season, he was supposed to have the starting nose tackle job, especially after Gabe Watson wrecked his knee during the offseason. Instead, veteran Bryan Robinson was named the starter, and Branch all but disappeared.

While defensive tackles can take a year or two to reach their potential in the NFL, Branch wants to morph into Albert Haynesworth and not Wendell Bryant.

?If you don?t blow up by this time, you?re looked at as a backup your whole career,? Branch said. ?I know my talent isn?t backup quality, so I want to make sure I?m not perceived as a backup player.?

That?s always been the catch for Branch, however. His talent has never been questioned. Branch said strength and conditioning coach John Lott, along with other coaches, has told him his athleticism for his size is unmatched.

?The key thing he has to is make sure he is in shape and be prepared to work ? and that has already started,? defensive line coach Ron Aiken said. ?He?s got the talent. He has to stay focused and put all the pieces together.?

Branch insisted he is making that effort. He said one of his issues is his eating habits, and that for a long time he wouldn?t eat until dinnertime. Eating breakfast, Branch said, is a ?chore,? but he forces himself to have some cereal or yogurt or fruit, knowing that?s the only way his body will function with the proper metabolism.

This is the time of year that can begin to change Branch?s reputation. It was the offseason last year when wide receiver Steve Breaston first caught the coaches? eyes in the weight room and then what he did during on-field work. Breaston said that?s when he started to prove the coaches ?were able to trust me.?

Branch needs to earn similar trust. Whisenhunt said he already took notice when Branch met with him late last season angry he wasn?t playing. That was another encouraging sign in Whisenhunt?s eyes, because Branch showed a desire that may not have always been apparent.

?They want to get me to play the best I can play,? Branch said, ?and I want to be that player.?


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 4/6/09.

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