After a junior season that earned him widespread attention from NFL scouts, Alabama defensive back Brian Branch declared Monday for the 2023 draft.
He made his announcement in an Instagram post, writing, “I’ve developed so much since my freshman year and because of Alabama I’m confident that I’m prepared to take my game to the next level.”
Branch will forgo his senior season, and two seasons of additional eligibility, by entering April’s draft. His social-media announcement came hours after three other Alabama juniors — Bryce Young, Will Anderson and Jahmyr Gibbs — participated in a news conference with coach Nick Saban in which they all declared for the draft.
Branch, who was Alabama’s starter at its “star” position in its secondary, leaves Alabama without some of the awards and accolades of Saban’s other top defensive backs from his 16 seasons as Tide’s coach. But his versatility to defend slot receivers, stop the run, blitz and defend the deep part of the field as a safety has drawn the attention of NFL teams while placing him on the radar as a potential first-round pick.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper last month rated Branch as his No. 20 overall prospect in the 2023 draft and the top-rated safety. He was projected by ESPN’s Todd McShay last month as the No. 18 overall pick.
Deciding to play in last Saturday’s Sugar Bowl instead of opting out of the non-playoff bowl game, Branch had perhaps his most productive college game. He intercepted Kansas State quarterback Will Howard, recorded a sack and finished with a season-high 11 tackles, including four for a loss.
“Brian Branch has played well for us all season long,” Saban said after the game. “He made some big plays today. The interception was big. We got off to a great start in the second half with a big play and two scores in the first two minutes in the second half, which kind of broke the game open. His interception was a big part of that.
“But he’s been a very consistent performer for us all year. He plays the star position, but he could play safety as well. He couldn’t finish the game today. He cramped up and we tried to give him an IV. But great competitor. Really good teammate. A guy that always plays hard and gives his best at all times.”
Branch arrived at Alabama as the No. 61 overall recruit in the 2020 class by 247 Sports’ composite rankings. The Tyrone, Georgia product competed with fellow freshman Malachi Moore for the “star” position in 2020, but instead landed at the “money” spot as Alabama’s sixth defensive back that season, intercepting two passes.
Branch filled in for an injured Moore during Alabama’s two College Football Playoff games in 2020, including its national championship game win over Ohio State. Branch retained that spot for the next two seasons, hitting his stride in 2022 with two interceptions, three sacks and 14 tackles for a loss.
The Associated Press named Branch to its All-America second team after this season, although he did not earn a spot from SEC coaches on the all-conference first or second team.
Branch joins starting safeties Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams, both seniors, in entering the draft. Moore confirmed to AL.com in the locker room after Saturday’s bowl game that he will return for his senior season in 2023, potentially moving to safety.
“I just want to come back and be a leader on the defense, and really lead my position group,” he said. “I’ve been playing a lot of free safety, strong safety and star, so just seeing what the coaches want to do.”
Alabama signed a five-star safety, Caleb Downs, as part of its 2023 recruiting class and has a pair of other highly-rated incoming freshmen in Florence’s Jahlil Hurley and Thompson’s Tony Mitchell who could compete for the “star” position.
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.
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