Marlin Taylor worked with a lot of speedy athletes in four seasons as offensive line coach at South Carolina powerhouse Dutch Fork High School, which won state 5-A titles in each of those years.
But when Taylor departed Dutch Fork to become head coach at Lower Richland High just outside of Columbia, he inherited an athlete “in a class of his own” in Nate Branch.
“I’ve never had anybody with that kind of speed,” Taylor said. “When I was at Dutch Fork we did have (former Tennessee defensive back) Bryce (Thompson). But just pure speed and pure athleticism, he’s (Branch) the first with that combination I’ve been blessed to coach.”
Those comments are music to the ears of East Carolina supporters after Branch became the newest member of the Pirate recruiting Class of 2023 on Sept. 18. Branch, who was previously committed to Coastal Carolina, chose ECU over offers from the Chanticleers, Eastern Kentucky, Gardner-Webb, James Madison, Kentucky, Liberty, Marshall, Massachusetts, Middle Tennessee State, North Carolina, Tennessee-Martin and Virginia Tech.
The 5-foot-10, 172-pound receiver-defensive back was “discovered” by ECU running backs coach Chris Foster last summer when he recorded a 4.3-second 40-yard dash during an in-state combine. The time wasn’t surprising for those familiar with high school track and field in South Carolina. Branch placed sixth in the state 3A 100-meter finals as a junior and was fourth as a sophomore. He holds the fourth-best times in the 100 (10.70) and 200 (22.11) dashes in Lower Richland school history, is part of the top 4×200 relay squad and has the 10th-best long jump (21-0.25).
“He is super fast,” Taylor reiterated. “He’s a hard worker. He works hard in the weight room. But that speed is something you can’t teach.”
Branch was already well known in Columbia-area football circles when Taylor was named Lower Richland head coach in late May 2020. Branch already had one season of varsity play under his belt and was ready to assume a bigger role with the Diamond Hornets as a sophomore.
“We live near Columbia (South Carolina) and it’s kind of big, but kind of small at the same time,” Taylor said. “The football community is kind of small, so we know all about kids in the area. I knew about Nate Branch from another coaching buddy of mine. When I got the job, I was told he’s one of the best athletes in the state, so you need to find a way to use him.”
Branch proved those opinions correct by earning all-region honors at receiver as a sophomore. He was then selected to the South Carolina Football Coaches Association 3A all-state squad as a junior when he caught 31 passes for 855 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Despite a 1-4 start for Lower Richland this season, Branch has still managed to excel. He had 15 catches for 286 yards and two touchdowns in four games at receiver, had 87 yards on two kickoff returns and made five tackles on defense while playing with an injured shoulder.
Branch’s ability to show up for his team, even when he’s not at his best physically, is another thing Taylor respects about his star.
“The thing I always tell people who message me and want to know what Nate Branch is all about, I go back to our second round playoff game against Clinton (last season),” Taylor said. “He had banged his shoulder up pretty good in our first-round game against Seneca. His parents kept saying that next week, ‘Coach, there’s no way he’s going to play. He can’t lift his shoulder up to scratch his back or get his hand over his head.’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll be OK.’
“By that Friday evening at kickoff time, he was ready with that arm up, moving it around 360, looking like nothing was wrong. He got into the game and started playing. Our quarterback broke for a scramble, and you could see (Branch) clinching that right arm and fighting the defender off with his left hand all the way about 30 yards down the field so the quarterback could score.
“That shows more about who he is as a player and as a kid as any catch or run he’s ever made.”
Branch also contributed four receptions for 124 yards and three scores in the 48-34 setback that ended Lower Richland’s season.
East Carolina has recruited Branch to play receiver, but Taylor believes he could just as easily help the Pirates at cornerback.
“I think he could be a better corner because of that speed, and he has great understanding of routes and how routes are developed from playing wide receiver,” Taylor said. “I could see him being something like the (Trevon) Diggs guy with the Cowboys.”
Diggs played safety, wide receiver and was a return specialist as a freshman at Alabama in 2016 before becoming a full-time cornerback the following year. He was a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
Branch initially made a verbal commitment to Coastal Carolina in early May. East Carolina offered Branch a scholarship on June 14, but he stuck with the pledge to Coastal until August 22.
“He had his heart set on Coastal and was locked in with that,” Taylor said. “East Carolina came in about the same time and stayed on him the whole time he was committed to Coastal. I guess that’s what paid off for them.”
Taylor expects Branch will remain at Lower Richland for his entire senior year, so he won’t likely enroll at ECU until the summer of 2023.