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Michigan's Branch leaving at perfect time

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Branch

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INDIANAPOLIS - Chad Henne and Mike Hart have opted to stay with the University of Michigan's football team for their senior seasons. But Alan Branch had no choice. He had to leave early.

Few players in the upcoming NFL Draft will find themselves in a more perfect place at a more perfect time than the 6-foot-5 1/2, 324-pound Branch.

If an NFL team runs a 3-4 defense Branch is a nose tackle. In a 4-3, he's a tackle or end.

"My reputation, I guess, is as a great run stopper at the point of attack," he said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "But I can be explosive out of the gate as a pass rusher too. I think a lot of teams have noticed my

versatility."

That may be why he names Richard Seymour as the player he would like to emulate in the pro ranks.

"He's a smart guy who can play every position on the D-line," Branch said.

The 6-6, 310-pound Seymour is also a five-time Pro Bowl pick who has averaged 60 tackles per season since being the sixth overall pick by the New England Patriots in the first round of the 2001 Draft.

That's about where Branch should go this time around.

The big Wolverine is known for shifting blockers into reverse and blowing up the pocket. He stacks up double-team blocks. He squashes runners at the line of scrimmage.

He can do it all, and there was no reason to keep doing it for room, board, and books.

"There were pros and cons to my decision," Branch said. "It was hard to leave the group of guys I came in with. And I hated leaving Michigan without a win over Ohio State and without winning a bowl game. But I just felt ready, and I thought I would be a fool to pass up this opportunity."

And Branch is nobody's fool.

Neither is Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr., who also surrendered his final year of college eligibility to enter the draft.

Unlike Branch, Ginn is not the top-rated prospect at his position, wide receiver. Not with the likes of Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson and USC's Dwayne Jarrett, two more underclassmen, in the mix.

But teams don't have to look far for, potentially, the next Devin Hester, last season's rookie sensation with the Bears who returned six kicks for touchdowns, including the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl. With his game-breaking sprinter's speed, and considerable skills as a receiver, Ginn also will also find himself in the perfect place at the perfect time.

Ginn is one of eight Buckeyes taking part in the Combine and is the only one, with the possible exception of fellow receiver Anthony Gonzalez, projected to go in the first round. Branch is one of six UM players here at the RCA Dome. He and cornerback Leon Hall, arguably the best cover-2 corner in the draft, are the only first-round locks.

Branch could go as high as No. 3, to Cleveland, although the Browns figure to favor an offensive player. Arizona, Washington, and Miami, all teams with top-10 picks, are others that reportedly have Branch on the radar screen.

"I would love to go in the top 10, that would be tremendous," Branch said. "Knowing that might be out there was why leaving Michigan right now presented such a great opportunity. The best athletes in the football world play in the NFL."

And, come the first round of the draft on April 28, he'll be among 'em.

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