Tales from the SunnySide: Marquez Branson

Born in Arkansas, the son of Amos and Elsie Branson, and growing up in Starkville AK, Marquez Branson is one of two things. Depending on exactly how you like to see the world, either he's a converted wide receiver who doesn't really fit anywhere in the NFL game, or he's another of the multi-talented, versatile players that coaches like Josh McDaniels is looking for. After only a single season on the Denver Broncos practice squad, it's really anyone's guess which one he is, but right now he's someone who is clearly worth keeping an eye on.

Branson's name has come up in two different capacities in the past week. First of all, he's ostensibly a tight end and the Broncos seem to be debating the future of Tony Scheffler with the club. At about 6'3 and somewhere between 242 and 250, he's obviously somewhat light for the position right now, but has the frame to fill out another 10-20 lbs over the next few years.

He isn't the best of blockers, although he's been steadily improving in that area (is any of this starting to sound familiar?). However - while this player, who was the Senior Bowl quarterback Nathan Brown's favorite target at Central Arkansas in 2008, he has the frame to add an estimated 10 to 15 pounds of muscle without sacrificing speed. That's good, because his Combine average was only about 4.7 (He did a run a few timed 4.55's between preparations, Combine and Pro Day). Branson has an arm span of 34.25 inches and a hand span of 10 inches, which gives him an edge in a lot of situations. He lead the All-Southland Conference First Team with an impressive 16.4 yards per catch at Central Arkansas, after doing two years at East Mississippi Community College and he managed 18 TDs in his last two years. Oh, and he managed a 35 inch vertical leap at Combine, third in that year at TE.

On his Pro Day, his performance was even better. His Pro Day numbers were remarkable: he ran even better at the UCA Pro Day, with times of 4.55, 4.67 and 4.66. He also posted a 36" vertical, a 4.40 short shuttle and a 7.29 3-cone. This is a player who may need to figure out his niche, but who has a lot of skills and some maturity to bring to his game.

He has flashed skill and grit as an inline blocker, but his second and probably his more real potential lies as a receiver or receiving TE, regardless of which routes (WR or TE) he would be running. Branson has a lot of talent. The package it comes in isn't the NFL standard, but there are a lot of players in the league who have that fact on their resumes. And, as far as blocking, nfl.com has this to say:

Surprisingly physical at the point of attack as a run blocker. Gets a good initial pop and will battle for position.

I love a receiver who likes to deliver a run block. That wasn't all they mentioned, though. They also liked a few other things:

Stout frame with room for additional growth. Good initial quickness off the snap. Athletic enough to gain a free release off the line and to shake linebackers to gain separation. Secure receiver who looks the ball into his hands. Can take a shot and maintain possession. Good speed to challenge the seam.

So, good hands, stout frame, good technique, doesn't mind taking a hard shot and doesn't drop the ball. His playing speed is a little better than his timed speed. And, they were honest enough to point out the problems of a man of his metrics making it in the NFL:

May have to make the transition to H-back (Whatever that means...) or fullback at the next level due to his lack of preferred size and strength. Has no experience as a traditional fullback. Good effort, but only marginal overall strength as a blocker. Level of competition a concern. May struggle with a complicated playbook.

Obviously, it's the last one that really makes him a longer shot on the Broncos. Struggling with a complex playbook isn't in your favor in Dove Valley. However - they're still keeping him on the team, so he's still giving Denver reasons to believe that he could be a good investment.

I also like to make note of something that comes up a great deal. If Branson comes out of community college with a bad habit such as 'marginal strength as a blocker' but you notice a compliment later, such as, "Surprisingly physical at the point of attack as a run blocker. Gets a good initial pop and will battle for position." you are usually looking at an issue that was resolved over his time at CAU. No one seems to go back and change old notes - they just add whatever is appropriate later.

For me, it's impossible to not notice that Peyton Hillis and Marquez Branson both have similar body types and skillsets. - at least, from what we can see of them as fans. Next training camp, it could easily come down to one or the other. So far, I've never seen Branson as a gunner on kickoffs, but I won't be surprised if I do next summer. A lot of players get a start because they're good on special teams and if McD and company thinks that he's worth a look, they'll want to know about STs, too.

By the way, I found an interview with the man that I enjoyed.  The prelude/introduction blurb went, in part, as follows:

During his two seasons with the Bears, senior tight end Marquez Branson has undoubtedly left a mark fitting of a 6-foot-3, 250-pounder on the Central Arkansas football program.

As the team's top receiver since stepping foot on campus, the transfer from East Mississippi Community College has led the team in receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and has been at the very least near the top, unofficially, in highlight reel grabs.

In his 17 touchdown receptions the past two seasons, he's made them every way possible - from as challenging as a one-handed grab with a man hanging on his other arm, to as simple as skipping his way into the end zone as the only man between the hashes.

He's ran over people, ran by people, and ran to people - often to those holding cameras.

You might want to read that one again. How did he skip through so many fingers? So, is this Peyton Hillis II, the Sequel? Probably not - there are enough differences to make that unlikely, and Marquez came in with McDaniels' first CFA class., if that means anything. But there are enough strengths in his profile to pique my interest both as a player and as a man. Here's what the interview had to say:

Q: Saturday's obviously a big day - last game of the season, your last game at UCA, a lot on the line - you ready for it?
A: I'm looking forward to it. Been looking forward to it since last year. I'm ready to go.

Q: This is a game you guys have had marked on the calendar for a while, right?
A:Yeah, we're planning on reversing the tide and making them feel like we felt last year.

Q: And how'd you guys feel (following the 41-14 season-ending loss at McNeese State)?
A: It left a real sour taste in our mouth to go down there and fight hard and not have anything go our way. This year, though, we're a lot better team and we've made a lot of sacrifices and worked harder than ever before to do our best and prepare for this, and hopefully we'll come out on top this time.

Q: With last year's game leaving a sour taste in your mouth, you immediately began looking forward to next year. This time, though, there will be no next year for you and the rest of the seniors. This is it. I guess that gives it that much more significance for you?
A: It does. To be playing the last game - it's been a long time coming. Four years of college ... had some hard times at junior college then came up here and had some difficult times but a lot of good times. I'm happy with the accomplishments we've had and with all the preparation and work that's gone into it. That's made me a better athlete and put me in a better position to get to the next level. I've had the best season of my career and I'll leave with no regrets. Now we just have to go out and finish it up on Saturday.

Q: It's already been a special season, with 9 wins already and at least a share of a conference title - even if the Southland Conference doesn't recognize it. Now you're finishing up against the most storied program in the league, at home, with a chance at an outright title on the line. It's days like this you play for, isn't it?
A: It is - this is what you dream about. All the scenarios you play out in your head as a little kid, this is what you dream up. It's like playing basketball and it's the last three seconds - you want the last points. That's how it is with us, it all boils down to this weekend so we've got to go out and do our best. (Note - they won, and finished the season 10-3)

Q: You made the basketball analogy ... you personally, if it's in that last three seconds do you want the ball in your hands?
A: Of course I do. I want it in my hands from the first minute of the game.

Q: What are your plans after you're done at UCA?
A: I'm going to go somewhere to train, I think out to Arizona, to get ready for the NFL Draft. I'll try my luck out with the NFL and see what I can do on that level. Hopefully I can get picked up by a team, keep working hard and elevate my game more and hopefully stick around the league for quite a few years.

Q: Before the season you had said you didn't pay much attention to what your pro prospects are or what was being written about you, what the scouts were saying or any of that. With the season now nearly over, have you started to pay more attention to that?
A: A little. I've heard a couple comments here and there about where I'll be playing. I'm a little too short for the prototypical tight end in the NFL, so I'll probably be moved to more of a fullback type guy and put on a few pounds.

Q: So are you fine with that, as long as they're paying you to play?
A: I am fine with that - that's the main thing. I'll go wherever they want.

Q: Is there one team in particular you're a big fan of?
A: I like the Colts most of all. Peyton Manning does his thing ... Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark. Dallas Clark is a really good tight end, and I like to think I'm that type of player. If there's any way possible for me to get up near his standards that'd be great.

Q: Any one player in particular you grew up emulating, one guy you looked at and said 'I want to be like that guy'?
A: Jerry Rice. I've always been a big Jerry Rice fan since he was from right down the street from where I live.

Q: Who would you consider the greatest tight end of all time?
A: Kellen Winslow - senior. I'm not talking about junior. He's good but he ain't passed his dad yet. Either Kellen Winslow or Tony Gonzales. It'd be real close between those two.

Q: You've had the chance to play with some talented guys in your time here, including another one in Nathan (Brown) who has a chance to play on Sundays. Has being on the field with a quarterback like that helped in your development as a player?
A: Definitely. As hard as he works, you know you have to come to work every day to keep up. He's going to throw the ball up there if he's got confidence in you and let you just go get it. He'll put it in the spot for you. If he shows that much confidence in me, I'm going to give him reason to keep throwing me the ball.

Q: Now on the flip side of that, you've shown to be pretty effective catching the ball and making some difficult grabs. Do you think you've made him any better?
A: (Laughing) I guess I'll get off of my humble side for just a second. Yeah ... you know, he's bailed me out but it's kinda vice versa sometimes. I've probably bailed him out a little too. We bail each other out, each make sure the other looks good. It's a good relationship we have.

Q: Is there any one catch in your career here that stands out?
A: I would say the one I caught a couple of weeks ago against Northwestern State in the back of the end zone. I didn't even realize I had caught it with one hand until I saw it the next day on film. Then the one last year against Sam Houston where I caught it over two guys in the end zone. I was proud of that one too.

Q: At what point did you realize you had a pretty special talent?
A: When I went to JUCO, they didn't really throw the ball and when they did they took the tight ends out and put four wide receivers in. In practice I would be out there catching the ball over everybody. We were playing a homecoming game and I guess I just got really, really mad and everything wasn't working for us. I ended up catching 10 passes that game and had two touchdowns. After that day I was really determined and knew if somebody would give me the chance, I could go out there and beat whoever. That's when I really started focusing on football and trying to make myself better.

Q: How would you sum up your time at UCA?
A: It's been good. It's been a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun and a lot of good times. For our first few years of D-I it's been really good. Last year was sort of a rebuilding year and we still finished 2nd in conference and this year we're 9-2 with a game left and we've already won our share of the conference. In three years of Division I that's pretty good. It was hard work, but well worth it. That's one thing that's always going to be there. Hard work pays off.

Did you notice the line, In his 17 (it was 18 after the last game) touchdown receptions the past two seasons, he's made them every way possible - from as challenging as a one-handed grab with a man hanging on his other arm, to as simple as skipping his way into the end zone as the only man between the hashes? Now, maybe it's just me, but I love a player who doesn't drop passes and doesn't mind fighting like heck for them. What else do we know about Branson? For example, how did Marquez Branson handle the Combine process?

"It's been an overall pretty good one," Branson said of the Draft process. "I went to the combine and did well after training in Arizona. Also, we won a conference championship in college and that was a good step going into the offseason. Now, I just have to go in there and compete like it's a life-or-death situation everyday."

Personally, I like a player who thinks in terms of survival of the fittest (with himself on top). They always remind me of Brian Dawkins, somehow. But Branson is quite serious when he talks that way. His QB and good friend, Nathan Brown. summed it up for both of them.

"You're constantly being asked about being at a small school what the main difference is, and really the truth is that it's not a whole lot," Brown said. "There may be a little more size and speed on the defensive line and maybe some size at linebacker [in the higher-profile conferences], but you face top-tier talent every week in the Southland. The biggest difference is the depth.

"And while it's an uphill climb to change that perception, really that's steeper with the draft experts and all that. With the NFL scouts and coaches, you still have a hill to climb, but it's not as much of one because if you can play football they're going to find you. You can look up and down NFL rosters and see small-school guys on every team, playing every position and having a lot of success. The NFL is probably the best of any of the pro leagues at finding talent. Be it at Division III, Division I-A or all roads in between. They'll find you no matter what school you're at."

The Broncos did find Branson at Central Arkansas and they took the next step to bring him on to the practice squad. Since the receiving game is anyone's guess for 2010 on the Denver Broncos, a sure-handed, powerful, YAC possession receiver doesn't sound all that bad. If Kenny McKinley can post the speed that the Broncos need to get behind the cornerbacks, perhaps Marquez Branson can knock over a few, with the ball and without it.

According to the widely-read Starkville Daily News, Branson had a Can-Do attitude when asked to move from wide receiver to tight end.

Branson is a converted wide receiver who grew up a huge fan of San Francisco All-Pro Jerry Rice... The rangy receiver can block as well while admitting that when Lee talked to him about moving to tight end he wasn't sure if it was for the best, but he quickly adapted.

"I can truly say that I'm glad Coach Lee asked me to make the move from wide receiver, not only did it help me, but it helped the team, and I'm for anything that helps the team."

Branson hauled in 45 catches for 737 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns this past season with the Bears off the arm of Brown as UCA raced to four straight wins while claiming seven of their first eight decisions to open the 2008 campaign. Central Arkansas capped the season with an impressive 47-30 triumph over McNeese State at Conway with first place in the SLC up for grabs.

The Broncos could use another guy or two who says, "...not only did it help me, but it helped the team, and I'm for anything that helps the team." They can also use guys who can get moved all over the field and just say, "Sure, Coach." when it happens, followed by acrobatic catches. Maybe that's just me.

I don't know if Branson can make it up to the next level, but here's a long list of reasons that he could, rolled into a YouTube video that is well worth watching.  Best of luck to him in the upcoming season.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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