Michigan defensive tackle Branch to enter NFL draft

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Alan Branch is skipping his senior
season at Michigan to enter the NFL draft, delivering a blow to the
Wolverines a week after they lost the Rose Bowl.

The 6-foot-6, 311-pound defensive tackle, a second-team
All-American, is projected as a first-round pick in April's draft.

"It's always been a childhood dream for me, but it was
surprising how tough of a decision it was," Branch said Monday.

Branch took advantage of a service the NFL offers to
draft-eligible players who are not seniors, and the league gave him
good news.

"I got my grade back and it said I was a solid first-rounder --
middle to late first round -- and it really did reinforce everything
I've been hearing," he said. "It didn't really have that much
pull in my decision, but it made me that much more confident."

As a junior, Branch made 25 tackles -- including six for losses
and two sacks -- recovered three fumbles, forced two fumbles,
intercepted a pass and broke up one.

Teams often were forced to block Branch with more than one
player, allowing his teammates to roam free and make more plays.

"The role of a defensive tackle isn't too gratifying," he
said. "You're there to get pressure on the quarterback. But at the
same time, you don't want to let go of somebody and let him get the
linebacker, whose job is to make tackles. But I'm a team guy, so I
don't really mind seeing the stats because my linebackers thank me
every day."

Michigan had hoped Branch would return to a defense that already
must replace three All-Americans: first-team defensive end LaMarr
Woodley, first-team cornerback Leon Hall and second-team linebacker
David Harris as well as a handful of other starters.

"Look out for a lot of guys, because our defense was really
deep," he said. "From my position alone, everybody needs to keep
an eye on Terrance Taylor and Tim Jamison."

Branch also mentioned cornerback Johnny Sears along with
linebackers John Thompson and Chris Graham as Wolverines capable of
going from little-known players to standouts.

With Branch's departure, Michigan will rely even more on an
offense that returns quarterback Chad Henne, running back
Mike Hart, tackle Jake Long and receiver Mario Manningham.

The Wolverines (11-2) lost to Southern California 32-18 last
week in the Rose Bowl, closing the season with two straight losses
for a third straight year.

After the Rose Bowl, Branch returned to his family's home in New
Mexico to weigh his options.

"I really sat and talked to my parents and really discussed how
I felt in my heart to see if I was ready for this big,
life-changing thing," he said. "I feel like I'm ready and I'm
following my heart."