The UConn football team may have been under the radar for most of last season, but the NFL Draft…
Can Branch rev up Raiders return game?
Despite packing 204 pounds into a rock solid 5-11 frame he averaged 28.4 yards on returns while in college at Connecticut and scored on a pair of 97-yard returns during his senior season.
But the real reason why the Raiders used their fourth-round draft pick to get Branch, even trading up to do so, is because he can tackle.
That's been a serious issue for Oakland's secondary almost the entire time the team has been back in Northern California despite frequent attempts by the Raiders to patch the problem.
In Branch, though, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan feels they finally might have an answer.
"He's really fun to watch," Ryan said. We really like the way that young man hits. It's fun to see a guy throw his body around and tackling. We know we had an issue there and we're looking to upgrade and I think we did that with that pick."
Branch, a cornerback in college, proved that during his final two seasons at Connecticut. After logging only 62 tackles combined during his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Branch had 168 tackles from 2006-07 to go along with 15 passes knocked down.
That — along with his blazing speed — was enough to convince the Raiders and owner Al Davis to move up in the fourth round in order to get Branch.
When he arrived for a three-day mini-camp two weeks after the draft, though, Branch didn't see his name under cornerback when he came across a depth chart. Instead, the Raiders are intent on trying to develop the hard-hitting New Yorker into a strong safety.
"I really didn't talk to anybody about it," Branch said. "When I got here they put up the depth chart and I saw I was at strong safety. Ever since then I've just been working on strong safety. A couple teams that worked me out were working me out at safety so I knew that it was a possibility."
The Raiders surprised Branch not only by moving him from cornerback to safety but by even drafting him. Outside of a few brief moments on the phone Oakland hadn't shown much interest in drafting a player whose primary job initially will be on special teams. Given a chance to ask why the Raiders selected him despite the apparent lack of interest, Branch shrugged his shoulders and chuckled.
"I didn't ask any questions," Branch said. "I'm just happy to be here."
Branch's career has been on a steady rise ever since he arrived at Connecticut after having won the 2004 National Indoor Track Championship in the 60 meters in high school. Although he played sparingly as a freshman Branch eventually worked his way into the starting lineup the following year after an injury cleared a spot ahead of him.
Once in the lineup Branch never left. He started the final five games in 2005, all 12 games in ‘06 and all 13 in ‘07. Along the way he improved his tackling numbers each season, going from 42 as a sophomore to 89 last year.
"He's going to be a good, solid player," Ryan said. "You talk about his versatility … that jumps off the tapes when you're watching him. He's a hard-hitting young man. We've seen just about every game (he) played this year and we're really excited about him.
"I know several teams had him at the top of their boards of the people that we know. You get feedback as a coach like, ‘Wow that's a great pick.' Everybody is excited about that pick but no one's as excited as the Raiders and us on defense, that's for sure."
Because the Raiders have him slotted at strong safety behind newly acquired Gibril Wilson, the odds are Branch won't break into Oakland's starting lineup any time soon. But his size and speed could make him a factor as a nickel or dime back.
He already has the inside track on being the team's primary kick returner, a position that came open when Chris Carr signed with Tennessee in the offseason. Johnnie Lee Higgins, a rookie last year, will also get a shot but Branch's speed make him the clear front-runner.
"It's definitely a great opportunity for me," said Branch, who averaged 28.9 yards on kickoff returns during his senior season at Connecticut. "(The Raiders) lost both their returners so I'm looking forward to stepping up and competing for that job. It's a thrill. It's an adrenalin rush. Everybody's coming out to kill you so you have to do your thing out there or you're going to get hurt."
Still, there is no guarantee Branch will be on the team's 53-man roster when the season begins. The Raiders did, after all, cut their third-round pick last season (Quentin Moses) even though he had a strong preseason.
"I'm not really nervous about it, but I know I have to perform to stay around," Branch said. "You've got to perform in this league and that's what I'm looking forward to doing."
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