Aug. 25, 2017
Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
Desmond Branch’s first move took him 1,400 miles.
His second move took him roughly 40 inches.
Branch, Georgia Tech’s 6-3, 277-pound redshirt junior, first arrived on The Flats from Rio Rancho, N.M., as a defensive end. He’s since moved one spot over, to defensive tackle, where he’ll look to anchor the Yellow Jackets’ interior when they open the 2017 season against Tennessee on Sept. 4 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (8 p.m., Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network).
“It’s more a mindset than anything. You’ve just got to know that you’re not on the edge anymore,” Branch said of his transition, which began last season.
“Once I got through that hurdle, I said okay. Double teams? I’m taking on that double team like any other 3-technique [lineman] in the nation. I’m no different than anybody. But I also bring that pass-rushing game from the outside to the 3-technique spot that maybe these guards haven’t seen yet. That’s what I’m kind of banking on,” he added.
Georgia Tech may return eight defensive starters from last year’s 9-4 team, but its losses aren’t insignificant. Among them is defensive tackle Patrick Gamble, a tough, durable gap-canceller who led the Yellow Jackets in sacks in 2016 (7.5). Playing behind Gamble, Branch finished with five tackles and two quarterback hurries.
The Yellow Jackets haven’t released a depth chart yet for their season opener against the Vols, but Branch figures to play a key role in replacing Gamble’s production. With preseason camp coming to an end, his play has caught the eye of coaches and teammates.
“He’s really quick. Really physical, really athletic. He’s had a great camp,” noted guard Will Bryan.
“He’s showing flashes. He’s worked this summer to gain some weight. He’s showing some good things in there, showing some leadership. He’s working on his technique,” said defensive line coach Mike Pelton, adding, “We’ve got a long way to go.”
Fortunately for Branch, he has a pro bono consultant helping him 0ut. His older brother, Alan, is entering his 11th NFL season as a defensive tackle with the New England Patriots. In addition to working extensively with Pelton, Branch says he regularly texts his brother YouTube clips of opponents, seeking his advice.
“In the transition, I definitely asked him little hints on what I was supposed to do, how I’m supposed to defend a block, play a block,” said Branch, the youngest of four brothers who have played FBS football.
“His knowledge about being a defensive tackle is amazing. Just being able to text him about anything, like, `Tennessee does this really well. How do you think I should be able to defeat that?’ And he’ll be able to give me a great answer. It’s always nice to have someone like that a text away. He’ll say it perfectly enough, detailed enough, on the phone where I can imagine in my head how to play it.”
Thanks to Alan, Desmond was also in attendance for arguably the most soul-crushing moment in Atlanta sports history, when the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI in Houston. The momentum started to swing in the fourth quarter when New England, trailing by 16 points, forced a fumble on quarterback Matt Ryan deep in Atlanta territory. Alan recovered the fumble.
While proud of his brother, Desmond sensed he might be persona non grata when he returned to Tech.
“My mom definitely told me that I can’t be wearing any Patriots gear back home. If anyone had anything to say, just try to keep your mouth shut,” he laughed.
(Alan, by the way, isn’t even Desmond’s most famous relative. A few years ago his brother did an Ancestry.com profile. They found out their family is distantly related to abolitionist Harriet Tubman.) His allegiances, though, hew far more to his home state than his brother’s NFL home. While Georgia Tech has a College Football Hall of Famer from New Mexico — Joe Guyon, a halfback on Tech’s famed 1917 national championship team, spent part of his childhood in Magdalena — the Yellow Jackets never had a player in the modern era from the “Land of Enchantment.” After playing his high school ball in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque, Branch spent a redshirt season at the University of New Mexico before transferring to Trinity Valley Community College (Tex.). Georgia Tech scooped him up as part of its 2016 signing class.
“I really appreciate what New Mexico has done for me. I was raised there. I’m very proud of where I’m from,” said Branch, who still yearns for his home state’s green chili sauce and has the Zia symbol from New Mexico’s state flag tattooed on his rib cage. He got it following Tech’s win in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Kentucky.
His next game comes on Labor Day night, where he’ll look to invigorate a Georgia Tech pass rush that has ranked 114th, 120th and 108th nationally in sacks per game over the last three seasons. Branch knows the scrutiny the defensive line has faced in recent years. He also knows his job requires more run stuffing than pass rushing, the stock-in-trade of his former position. But he and his teammates are hungry to restore their line’s reputation.
“We’re pushing each other to try to be great, pushing each other for each other’s goals. The closeness and the bond [we have] really helps,” he said.
If all goes as planned, Branch could turn opposing backfields into his own Land of Enchantment in 2017.