By Jaylon Thompson
The morning sun illuminated the exterior walls of Patriots Stadium. As the remaining daybreak ran its course, Sandy Creek senior defensive back Brian Branch casually took his place in front of a mural depicting former Patriots alumni.
Brimming with confidence, Branch unleashed his signature pose as he stood for his Fayette News “Super 12” photo. His number 14 was emblazoned in the spotlight of Patriots legends like Calvin Johnson, Andrew Gardner, and Kedric Golston.
“I want to be better than Calvin Johnson,” Branch proclaimed when asked about leaving a legacy in his final season.
It’s a lofty goal for sure. If anyone can attain such high acclaim, it’s the uber-talented Branch.
The burgeoning star has made headlines since enrolling at Sandy Creek. He’s played a significant role after hitting the field his freshman year and recently committed to play for college football savant Nick Saban at the University of Alabama.
“The University of Alabama came and I took the opportunity,” Branch said. “It was surreal because I have always seen him (Saban) on TV.” I was like, ‘I got to meet that man.’”
Branch was the 15th commit in Alabama’s 2020 recruiting class. He was rated a four-star recruit and had offers from a litany of schools. He chose Alabama over the likes of Tennessee, Ohio State, and Oklahoma.
“Iron sharpens iron over there,” Branch said.
Alabama offers many amenities. A major advantage is the proximity to home, with Tuscaloosa just a little over three hours away so family and friends can see Branch play regularly.
All in the Family
Family plays a big role in Branch’s life. He has three siblings and they are all involved in sports. In fact, his odyssey towards stardom began inches away from his childhood television set.
At a young age, Branch gazed upon the sporting landscape. It was difficult to keep him away from daily recaps and noteworthy games. Branch often spent hours indulging the idiosyncrasies of his favorite teams and athletes.
Branch’s mother, Sharon, usually sat in amazement. She recalls him just analyzing every aspect of a certain play or scheme.
“I would just watch him wondering what is going through his mind,” Sharon said.“They always commented on his abilities to be so young. My sister always said Brian, as a kid, understood sports like an adult.”
Growing up, Branch searched for a way to stand out. He was in the mix playing football or basketball and got his official introduction with the Sandy Creek Junior Patriots.
It didn’t take long before his talent started to shine. Branch paired his physical tools as a receiver with his mental prowess to become a terrific defensive back. He earned a spot on varsity and quickly moved up the depth chart.
Branch led the team in interceptions through his first five games. He later flourished with kickoff and punt return duties.
“We knew when he was a freshman that he was going to be pretty good,” Sandy Creek head coach Brett Garvin said. “He picked up on the concepts pretty quick, and that’s usually a sign that they have the skill set to do it.”
After a junior season racking up 58 tackles (30 solo), 5 interceptions, and 6 pass breakups, Branch was named All-County Defensive Player of the Year. Offensively, he added 15 receptions, 368 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns, and 915 return yards.
“I believe Brian was destined to play football and he worked really hard at his craft,” Sharon said. “He was pushed a lot by his brothers, Christian and Steven, and play brother Jaelen Greene. I am grateful to all his coaches, trainers, and supporters for depositing in him all the things that helped him accomplish his goal.”
The Patriot Way
Schools started to take notice in the offseason. Branch picked up his first offer from Indiana, and soon schools like Cincinnati, South Carolina, and Louisville came calling. Sharon joked the mailbox was always filled with letters and postcards.
“I actually grew annoyed of it after a while because my mailbox would be so stuffed I couldn’t find my own mail,” Sharon laughs. “But this was truly a blessing so I would not complain.”
Sharon knew that her son was on his way. After being sold on Alabama, she was all in for him to continue his ascent in a place that felt like home.
“Brian’s commitment to Alabama definitely makes me a proud parent,” Sharon said. “It’s not every day your child gets an opportunity of this magnitude.”
With his collegiate decision finalized, Branch is looking forward to crossing two more items off his senior wish list. His top goals are to record 10 interceptions and win a state championship. He has a good chance to get a ring this season. The Patriots are among the favorites to win Region AAAA, and they return several upperclassmen. Branch is a senior captain and will lead the defense.
To prepare for the role, he’s spent the offseason improving his speed and physicality.
“Last year, I wasn’t physical enough,” Branch said. “This year I would like to be more physical.”
He will also shoulder a larger load on the offensive end. Garvin expects him to contribute heavily as a receiver and on special teams.
“He’s going to play a bunch of wideout for us and he’ll catch a bunch of balls this year,” Garvin said.
Branch is up for the challenge. Receiver is a familiar position and allows him to unlock his knowledge of route concepts.
“It’s more natural being a receiver,” Branch said. “Knowing the movements of a receiver and what they do helps me as a defensive back. I know what to expect and can go up and high point the ball.”
Branch’s versatility and football IQ also separates him among others. Garvin said he has the uncanny ability to diagnose concepts and visualize them on the field.
“I don’t have to tell him stuff but one time,” Garvin said. “I can draw something up on the board, tell him this is what I want you to do, and he can go out there and do it.”
After the upcoming season, Branch will take his talents to the All-America Bowl in San Antonio, Texas. The all-star game features 100 of the top athletes from around the country. It’s a true honor to be invited, and Branch hopes to have a state championship in tow when he hits the field in early January.
Before then, there is still business to attend to. Branch’s eyes are squarely set on his final dance. It begins with a visit from the Fayette County Tigers on August 16.
If all goes right, he will move closer to etching his name alongside the Patriot greats. He might even make good on his promise to be better than Calvin Johnson.