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Branch looking to future


JACKSONVILLE – Andre Branch likes what he's hearing.

He likes, too, what he has seen. Because whenever the Jaguars' defensive end watched the Seattle Seahawks play defense last season he said he couldn't help being envious.

So, when he heard in January the Jaguars' new head coach will be Gus Bradley, and that their defensive line coach will be Todd Wash, and that those two had a whole lot to do with how the Seahawks played last season…

Well, in that equation was a lot for Branch to like.

"I'm definitely getting that vibe, and I'm very excited," Branch said Monday from Los Angeles, where he is training this offseason and preparing for the Jaguars' three-day veteran orientation camp April 16-18 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.

Part of that excitement comes from knowing a difficult rookie season is over at last. But the 2012 second-round selection from Clemson said his optimism wasn't as much about what he did or didn't do last season.

Rather, it is about the future – and what is possible.

Bradley, the Seahawks' defensive coordinator the past four seasons, and new Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell, have spoken highly of Branch in recent weeks. Branch said he has spoken to the pair since their January hirings, and the conversations have gone well.

"They're as excited as I am," Branch said. "They love how I play. Just hearing that from the new coaching staff, that's all I really need. They want to get the ball rolling in the right direction."

Wash last month mentioned Branch as an eventual possibility for the Leo pass-rusher position, a position expected to initially be played primarily by veteran Jason Babin. But ideally, the defense needs two Leos, and if Branch doesn't play Leo, he will have a chance to fit into the more conventional defensive end role. Wash last month called Branch a "quality pass rusher."

"I'm very excited about him," Wash said at the time.

Branch rarely showed that potential as a rookie, and he said there were a variety of reasons.

The No. 38 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, he drew praise last off-season from coaches, and he began the year in the starting lineup. But by season's end, he was playing sparingly, and finished the season missing the last three games with a groin injury after registering one sack.

"It was a rough year," he said.

Part of the problem was circumstances facing any NFL rookie, Branch said. A long offseason preparing for the draft, a long period of minicamps and organized team activities followed by the longest regular season of a player's career to that point. There also was the factor of a new coaching staff.

Mostly, Branch said he never felt as if he was a fit for the defense being played last season, something he said couldn't be more different this season.

"Certain things we did last year kind of held me back," Branch said. "That's not an excuse, but at the same time, I feel like they're going to bring every aspect of my game out this year."

Branch said he felt that from the moment he heard Bradley was being hired. Whenever he watched the Seahawks last season, he said he not only liked the energy and excitement with which the defense played, but the way they used their defensive ends.

"As soon as I heard the coaching staff was Jaguars now, I was like, 'I can't wait to learn this scheme,''' he said. "I was so excited.  They all looked like they were having fun out there. That's what it's all about. If you're not having fun, you don't need to be playing the game.

"I feel like they're going to use my athleticism. Last year, it pretty much wasn't about athleticism. It was about somebody being in the right spot.  They have different things and different packages for me. I'm a very athletic player. I'm a playmaker. I feel that way about myself and about my game.

"A lot of people on the outside looking in think a player should dominate regardless, but a certain scheme fits a certain player. I feel like this is a scheme I can't wait to play in."

And if there are those who wonder what he will do in that scheme – or at the least, who consider him a forgotten man?

"I love it that way," Branch said. "I've been an underdog my whole life. Coming out of high school, I was a two-star athlete. Going into college, everything was against me. I fought my way up. I persevered. I really feel they're ready for this to be my breakout year.

"I'm just so happy to get started. I know they're excited to use me in ways I love to be used."

But make no mistake:

Branch said he knows the key to success isn't just being used differently, and he said he learned the lesson any NFL rookie must learn – that the NFL is a different game, played at a different level and speed, than college.

"Everybody's good, everybody's fast, everybody's strong," he said.

Still, Branch remains confident he will improve, and to ensure he does, he is spending much of the offseason training in Los Angeles with Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis. The two have adjacent lockers at EverBank Field, and the former Pro Bowl tight end has become something of a guiding force for the younger player.

"Marcedes is like my big brother," Branch said. "When I got there, he was the one person who kind of took me under his wing. He has been through it. He said, 'Your rookie year is going to always be rough. It's rare to have a breakout year and come in and dominate.' But from that rookie year on, you have to keep getting better. It's about progression."

Branch said he is working toward that by using the same UFC-training techniques used by Lewis the past two off-seasons, working with professional UFC fighter Cooper Gibson and NFL commentator Jay Glazer.

"It's all about positioning and hand quickness," Branch said. "My trainer is telling get to the quarterback every time I train. That motivates me every time.  I'm trying to make a name for myself. That's why I'm out in L.A., trying to get to that goal, trying to be a great player."

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