Defensive lineman Alan Branch has slimmed down and is starting to live up to his billing when he came out of Michigan as a second-round pick in 2007.
Sometimes, Alan Branch would take the long way home.
"Just so I didn't have to drive past this damn building," the Cardinals defensive lineman said, referencing the Cardinals' Tempe facility. "That's how much I couldn't stand being here."
Branch's car gets fewer miles these days. He likes coming to work now, likes playing football. He likes his role, he likes the increasing playing time he has earned, and likes that he is finally tapping into his immense potential. The Cardinals like it too, even if it took until Branch's fourth season – after the Cards traded up in the second round of the 2007 draft to take Branch – for Branch to figure some things out.
Well, make that figure one thing out: His weight.
His coaches, from Ken Whisenhunt to defensive coordinator Bill Davis to defensive line coach Ron Aiken said Branch's potential was always tied to his weight, and to them, it's a direct correlation to Branch finally getting under control (he pegs himself at about 327 pounds these days on his 6-foot-6 frame).
Branch is willing to acknowledge that has made a "big difference." But he points mostly to his improved mental state as the biggest turnaround – even though he also noted that being bummed about coming to work was often weight-related.
"I used to be on eggshells just walking around the building, 'Oh, someone is going to say something about my weight,' " Branch said. "It just wasn't cool.
"My mental mindset has changed immensely. I used to come to practice and think, 'Damn, another work day. I'm not looking forward to coming here.' … Now, it's an easier environment to succeed in."
The success is coming more frequently and is easier to notice. In Seattle, he had two sacks, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble playing. He smiled when talking about coming around the edge to make one of his sacks, a play stunningly quick for a man of his size and one he couldn't remember making in a long time.
"Did you see him turn the corner to make that play?" Aiken said. "This guy has athletic ability.
"This was not real complicated. (Strength and conditioning coach) John Lott has been saying it the whole time and Whiz has taken a stand with it. The kid has got God-given ability."
Davis said he doesn't know of a specific turning point for Branch. "It's been a lot of long talks, a lot of coaching sessions," Davis said.
Branch has benefitted from playing some end as opposed to nose tackle, a spot he never embraced. But Davis said Branch's ability is such that, in shape, Branch is effective no matter where he plays. And if he is not in shape, he is ineffective no matter where he plays.
That's not a problem anymore.
"You can't say anything negative," said longtime teammate Gabe Watson, who not only has played with Branch in Arizona but also in college at the University of Michigan. "He worked hard, lost a lot of weight, and gained speed."
The question is whether Branch can continue his level of play on a consistent basis. Coaches certainly are taking a wait-and-see attitude after all these years. Branch is also at the end of his contract, although he insists "I'm not one of those guys, 'Oh, my contract is coming up and I've got to play hard.' "
That doesn't mean he doesn't want a new contract and the accompanying job. "Who doesn't?" Branch said with a chuckle. "I mean, it's the recession."
If he keeps playing the way he has been, Branch will find work. It's not a lock he will remain in Arizona – although that's possible -- but it will be somewhere.
"I got derailed for a second but I am back on track," Branch said. "A couple years ago, it was just that I have a job and I am playing football. Now I can see myself, what I want to do. I want to be in this league. I am taking this seriously."
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