Not that he didn’t like
No question, Joe Cullen did. Before the 2012 NFL Draft, Cullen – the Jaguars’ high-energy, tough-to-please defensive line coach – very much liked about Branch many of the things defensive line coaches like about defensive ends they covet.
Cullen liked Branch’s game tape. He liked his motor. He liked his arm length. He liked the raw ability.
He liked that he has the chance to grow into his body. He liked his sudden quickness. He liked how he uses his hands. He liked his ability to bend.
But while Cullen liked those things, some things a coach doesn’t know about a player until he works with him every day. In the last few weeks, Cullen has gotten that chance with Branch, the Jaguars’ second-round selection in the April draft.
“He’s better than I thought,” Cullen said recently during 2012 organized team activities, which continue this week at Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields adjacent to EverBank Field.
“He’s working harder and getting better every day. Just a little bit, but he is better than I thought.”
Cullen’s words aren’t career-defining, and won’t mean as much when he is driving Branch through the stifling Jacksonville heat this summer, but for now, they’re important. They’re also ones Branch likes to hear, but he said has much as he liked hearing that the Jaguars like his ability, he liked the other part – the part about working hard – more.
“On this level, everybody’s good,” Branch said. “It’s how you separate yourself. Me, I don’t really know my arm (length). I can tell you a range of how much I weight, but that’s not going to make you a good player. Things like that, I don’t focus on.”
Now, Branch focuses on how to work, something he said didn’t do particularly well throughout most of his college career. Not until February 2011, anyway. That was when his grandfather, Orlandus—a month before his death – asked, “Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?”
At first, Branch said he didn’t understand. Then, he realized there were players on his own team equally talented – and in some cases, less talented – playing better, receiving more recognition, getting more from their skills.
Branch said he changed after that, began studying film, began learning more about what he was doing. It’s a trait he wants to hone in the coming months and years.
“To be a pro, you have to be a student of the game,” he said. “If you’re not, you won’t be around long.”
That’s particularly true at defensive end, a position at which many players with draft statuses as lofty as Branch’s fail. Most have the same physical attributes as Branch. The league looks for long arms, a body type with room for growth, and players with those attributes ascend rapidly each April.
At the same time, defensive end is a high-risk position in the draft. Superior athletes often dominate at the college level only to find that in the NFL they’re not so superior.
At that point, willingness to work and willingness to learn separate great from average.
“Everything ties in,” Cullen said. “He has the willingness to be coached hard. He’s been really excellent. He has made tremendous progress. All of the things we saw, the qualities we liked, are there. He’s competing hard.”
In Cullen, Branch said he has a coach who will push him. That won’t be an easy thing, but Branch said it will be a good thing.
“When Coach Cullen and I met, his first question was, ‘Do you handle hard coaching?’’’ Branch said. “I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘That’s the kind of coach I am and off the field, I’m going to love you like my son.’ My thing is learn from him. If he’s yelling, he just wants me to get better.
“I’m a firm believer that what you do on the practice field shows on Sunday. If I’m being lackadaisical on the field, I’ll be bad on Sundays, but if I’m busting my tail, everything will work out.”
Cullen said he believes that effort will pay dividends not only in the long run, but in the short-term, too, and he also said Branch is more versatile than many believed before the draft. The book on Branch before the draft was he was the protypical pass-rushing defensive end – i.e., athletic and quick enough to rush the passer, but against the run, not so much.
“Stopping the run is coaching and technique,” he said. “I know some people out there said that might be a weakness, but I haven’t seen that. He can set the edge. I only think that will get better.”
And as for Branch’s rookie role? “I think he definitely will contribute,” Cullen said. “Look at who we’ve had the last couple of years. (Defensive tackle) Tyson (Alualu) started from Day 1. (Defensive end) Austen (Lane) was forced into starting (as a rookie), and did an adequate job. He got better his second year. I see Andre being somewhere in between.
“Is he a starter? He’d have to earn it. Will he be a situational pass rusher? Yes, he will, and we’ll go from there.”
And just where will that lead? As Branch sees it, the answer is pretty simple: Wherever Cullen – and hard work – will take him, which is why he is thinking less about specific numbers during his rookie NFL off-season and more about just doing whatever it is he is told to do.
“Sacks are great, but like Coach Cullen says, ‘If you do your job and play with the utmost intensity, numbers will come,’’’ Branch said. “I’m out here trying to learn the playbook and be the best I can be. Anything I can do to contribute to this team is my main goal.”