In the 2011 football season, Virginia Tech pounded every opponent in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Every opponent except Clemson, that is.
The Hokies had a 7-1 record in conference play, better than every team in the ACC, even better than Clemson’s 6-2 mark.
But for some reason, the Tigers had the Hokies’ number. And so did Clemson defensive end Andre Branch.
Branch absolutely abused Hokies left tackle Nick Becton in their regular-season meeting on Oct. 1 to the tune of single-game career highs of 11 tackles and four sacks.
“I’m just blessed,” said Branch, reflecting on that game back at the NFL Combine in February. “I can’t tell you there was one thing I could pinpoint.
“Mostly it was just I felt like I was better than the left tackle, and I felt like that throughout the whole season. But at the same time, they were down, so they had to pass more, so I had more opportunities.”
Branch was the teacher, Becton receiving a lesson. Clemson won the game handily, 23-3, and also beat Virginia Tech again in the ACC championship game for the right to advance to a BCS bowl game.
For such a dominating performance in the regular season against the Hokies, that game also caused some to question Branch’s body of work, however.
Why did his sacks seem to come in spurts?
“I feel like my sacks came in spurts in probably one game,” said Branch. “Other than the Virginia Tech game, I averaged a sack a game. Other than that, I’m just here to work hard, and my sacks will come. I’m a natural pass rusher, and they’ll come easily to me.”
Another black mark on Branch’s résumé, and every Clemson defensive player for that matter, was their Orange Bowl loss, a 70-33 shellacking at the hands of West Virginia.
Branch is generally regarded as a second-round talent in this year’s NFL Draft class, perhaps even as high as a late first-round selection. The same can be said of Branch’s teammate, defensive lineman Brandon Thompson.
If Branch and Thompson are so talented, how did Clemson manage to give up a staggering 70 points to the Mountaineers?
“The West Virginia game I’d like to erase,” said Branch. “But at the same time, it is what it is. You can’t single anybody out or point any fingers. We just lost.”
Regardless of the criticisms, the raw skills are there.
After measuring in at 6-4 and 259 lbs. at the Combine, Branch impressed by running a 4.70 40-yard dash and leaping 120 inches in the broad jump, both among the top five performances by defensive linemen.
If Branch were to be drafted by the Green Bay Packers, or any team running a 3-4 defensive system, he’d very likely make the transition to outside linebacker. And that’s always an issue, projecting college defensive ends to professional outside linebackers.
But it’s also a conversion Branch thinks he can make with ease.
Though he played primarily from a three-point stance at Clemson, Branch did have occasional opportunities to play from a stand-up position and drop into coverage, something he’d have to do more frequently as a linebacker.
“A lot of teams want to know, can I play linebacker or am I just strictly a rush defensive end?” said Branch. “Most of the time, my answer is gonna be yes, I can play linebacker. It shows on film that I can. I’m ready to do whatever.”
Perhaps Branch’s biggest asset is his ability to make those around him better, and vice versa.
In 2010, he was teammates with defensive end Da’Quan Bowers who was selected in the first round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a year ago.
Bowers had 67 tackles, 26 for a loss and 15.5 sacks in 2010, and it can be argued whether the presence of Branch helped free up Bowers to make so many big plays.
To a lesser extent, the same reasoning could be applied to Branch’s impact in 2011 on Thompson who had 47 tackles, eight for a loss and three sacks this past season.
“Him being double teamed, it singled me up,” said Branch. “If I got double teamed then he got singled up. Things like that is how we worked off each other.”
That’s exactly what the Packers could use.
After finishing near the bottom of the NFL in sack efficiency in 2011, they could use someone to help take attention away from Clay Matthews and free up the defensive linemen to make some sacks of their own.
Whether they look Branch’s way for assistance will be determined in late April.