Branson Combs’ leaping touchdown reception with 52 seconds remaining lifted Southern Illinois over No. 3 Weber State in the spring 2021 playoffs. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Dan Verdun
Branson Combs’ parents, Annette and Ronnie, both played college basketball at the University of Southern Indiana, a then-Division II school located in Evansville.
“They stayed there after that,” Combs told Prairie State Pigskin. “Sports, that’s what my family kinda was. Ever since I can remember I was playing basketball in the backyard or throwing a football or a baseball. From as far back as I can remember, it was all sports.”
Branson Combs went to Reitz Memorial High School, a private school in Evansville. There, he ended his career ranked fourth all-time in Indiana high school receiving yards (3,732).
In 2017, as a junior, he had eight catches, 188 yards and three TDs in the state championship game.
His senior season, Combs grabbed 75 balls for 1,517 yards and 32 touchdowns. Twenty-four of those scores came receiving, but he also recorded three by rushing and three by interception return to go along with one each as a punt and kickoff returner.
Like his parents, Combs also played basketball. In addition, he was an all-conference baseball player.
As a three-sport athlete, Combs was a coveted commodity by recruiters.
Southern Illinois won out, landing the Salukis the receiver who would make one of the biggest catches in school history.
His leaping, 8-yard reception in the right corner of the end zone lifted SIU over third-ranked Weber State in the 2021 spring postseason.
The following fall, Combs was moved to defense where today the 6-foot-3, 224-pounder is a stalwart at linebacker.
Get to know Branson Combs in this week’s Moving the Chains Q&A.
What was it like growing up in Evansville?
It’s not a small town, but it’s not a big one either. It’s somewhere in the middle. I have a lot of family there, so as I grew up I had cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents around. It was nice being able to live alongside family..
I went to private school (Reitz Memorial High School). I had my uncle, well he’s not really my uncle. He (John Hurley) was the football coach. He’s my cousin’s uncle, so we just say he’s my uncle. We were going to go to school there anyway, but it was nice to have someone there that we knew.
How did you end up at Southern Illinois?
Obviously, the coaching staff here. But another big thing — and it’s kind of funny now — was that I wanted to play receiver. I was getting recruited more as a linebacker by most schools. But here at SIU, they were giving me an opportunity to play receiver.
So, I came here and played receiver for two years, and now I’m switched over to linebacker (chuckles).
How did you feel about that switch, and what has the transition been like?
At first, I wasn’t the happiest to be honest. I told them (coaching staff) that, so it’s not like I’m letting out new news here. It wasn’t something that I really wanted to do.
But, it was a situation where we had lost linebackers and had a lot of receivers returning. I felt like I had a better chance of getting on the field at linebacker.
Is that how the coaches sold the change to you?
Well, they sold it to me as that I was going to get to play both. I was all for that. You could say that lightened my mood a bit.
But, honestly it’s tough to go back and forth between offense and defense at practice. It hasn’t really worked out too well.
You caught one of the most famous touchdown passes in recent SIU history, the game-winner at Weber State in the 2021 spring playoffs. What do you remember about that play?
It’s a great memory of a great win. It started out that we were going to go with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end with three wide receivers), which meant I wouldn’t have been in the game. But then, (quarterback) Stone (Labanowitz) or somebody said, “Why don’t we get 10 personnel (one running back, four wide receivers) since we knew we were throwing the ball. We ended up switching it right at the end.
That put me into the position that ultimately got the ball thrown to me. We motioned (receiver) Avante (Cox) over. With him being the (dangerous) receiver he is, that drew attention away. It pulled the corner down, and (my) route was able to get over the top (of the defense) to get open and make the catch to win the game.
In your memory, can you still see that play developing?
Absolutely. I can see going up and high-pointing the ball as it was coming my way. Stone made a helluva throw. (He) put it in the one spot where I could get it, and I came down with it.
How has playing receiver helped you now as a linebacker?
The main thing is that I have a better feel for routes and concepts. I feel like I can see a route and put it together in my head. It’s more of an instinct thing. (For example), I see one route pivot on the inside or coming behind or a crosser or curl. Just stuff that I ran constantly every day (as a receiver), so that now comes into my head instinctively and helps me a bit in coverage.
Since you’ve had experience on both sides of the ball, what’s a bigger thrill for you — catching a touchdown, getting an interception or delivering a big hit?
I don’t think there’s too much better than scoring a touchdown, but I don’t know. The touchdown is obviously great, but the interception — taking the ball away — is just as big. I’m all for catching the ball. I’m not going to shy away from contact. I never did when I was on offense.
A big hit is fun, but being able to use my ball skills in any aspect is entertaining to me.
SIU recently had its Blackout Cancer game, in which Saluki players wear special jerseys that bring awareness and support to cancer patients in the southern Illinois region. Whose name was on the back of your jersey?
The last name as Beasley. The family or man or woman who bought it was not actually at the game, so I wasn’t able to meet them. The jersey was shipped to them.
It’s awesome to support something that affects so many people in the locker room and around the community.
Thanksgiving is approaching. What are your family traditions for the holiday?
It wasn’t anything too big. It was the family that we had in town. It was always eating at my family’s house.
When we got to high school, we were hoping to be playing in the state championship on Thanksgiving weekend. Since I was 14 or 15, it was that hopefully we were in Indianapolis playing.
It’s the same thing in college. You want to be playing on Thanksgiving weekend, and if you’re not, then something didn’t go right in the season. That’s been the mentality since I was in high school.
What is your favorite food to find on the Thanksgiving table?
I’m kind of a picky eater, so I don’t eat too many things at the Thanksgiving dinner. I’m honestly more like fried chicken, green beans, rolls and dumplings. That’s about all I’m going to eat.
Being an athlete at the collegiate level, have your eating habits changed?
It’s making sure that I’m put enough into my body as I refuel, especially with the move to linebacker. I had to put on 10-15 pounds. I had to start eating more to do that.
Imagine this scenario: the SIU men’s basketball coaches come to the football team in need of two players to provide more bench strength for the Salukis. Who suits up?
I don’t need too much time to think about this at all. It’s me. If we’re going by who’s the best basketball player on the football team, we’re going right here with No. 1.
And No. 2 right next to me is Javon (Williams Jr., running back).
What was your strength as a basketball player?
I wasn’t a great shooter at all, but I could get to the hole a little bit. I was a smart player. Defensively, I was pretty good. I think I could do a lot of things pretty well besides shoot the ball.
What about Javon?
He’s kind of a “do-it-all” player. I’ve never played him actually, but I know he played one of my friends, Zack Zebrowski (a 6-foot-2 quarterback). They’ve played one-on-one. I’ve beat Zebrowski twice, (but) he doesn’t like to talk about it.
(Javon) can shoot it. He was like a 1,000-point (career) guy in high school.
You definitely don’t want to take a charge (on him).