SIU’s Combs becomes a big hit at linebacker after switch from wide receiver
today at 5:32 am
Watching film after his team’s Saturday game at Northern Iowa, Nick Hill saw a young linebacker flash on the screen with two interceptions and six tackles.
On Monday, he saw the same player – redshirt freshman Branson Combs – play a much different role as the Salukis prepare for this week’s game against Missouri State.
“I’m watching the film 10 minutes ago of him making a fourth-down touchdown reception against Missouri State last year,” Hill said during his weekly press conference. “And now, he’s playing defense.”
The versatile Combs – an accomplished prep wide receiver in Indiana – played in all 10 games during the spring COVID season, starting twice.
The biggest of his 12 receptions came April 24, when he leaped to grab an 8-yard scoring pass in the final minute to help the Salukis beat Weber State, 34-31, in the opening round of the FCS playoffs.
“I guess it’s just right spot, right time,” Combs told the Saluki Radio Network about the game-winning catch. “Guys around me were making plays. When I got an opportunity, I made a play. Receiver was always a position I wanted to play growing up. That was my favorite position.”
As a senior at Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, Ind., he caught 24 TD passes among his 75 receptions as a senior, helping his team to a state title game, where he caught eight passes – three for TDs – and compiled 188 receiving yards.
But when Hill examined his depth at wide receiver, with senior stalwart Landon Lenoir, dynamic junior Avante Cox, Cincinnati transfer Jerron Rollins and speedy freshman Izaiah Hartrup, he saw a way for Combs to help the Salukis more on defense.
“A backup receiver gets 15-18 reps,” he said. “You just don’t have a big impact on the game. I wanted Branson to be what he’s doing now — being in the mix and making a huge impact.”
Hill said he first broached the idea before spring ball last season. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic began and the timing wasn’t right to make the switch and allow Combs a full off-season at his new position.
“Not that he exactly wanted to do it, but ultimately he’s a team guy,” Hill said. “He could come back and play receiver for 10-12 reps if we really needed him. Everybody needs some time to develop. Right now, we’re seeing the beginnings of what could be a really good player on defense.”
In the first quarter of Saturday’s 23-16 loss at UNI, Combs picked off Panthers’ QB Theo Day in the first quarter when he cut in front of a receiver and returned the ball 15 yards. In the fourth quarter, he fought off UNI running back Bradrick Shaw for his second pick.
“He put (the pass) more on me than the running back,” Combs said of Day’s throw.
Learning more expanded college defensive concepts has been the biggest adjustment, according to Combs, who has 20 tackles this season and two pass breakups. But the reward is being able to contribute more often.
“At the end of the day, every athlete wants to get on the field and play as much as they can,” he said. “I’m obviously going to do whatever I can to get on the field. This is the best opportunity for me. I definitely feel like I’m getting more comfortable as the year goes on. I feel like I’m kind of settling in at this point.”
Hill praised Combs for his unselfishness in making the switch and said the benefits include giving one of the team’s best overall players and athletes more opportunities.
“I think Branson is one of the best 22 overall football players on our team, so we’ve got to get him on the field,” Hill said. “It tells you a lot about him and what kind of athlete Branson is, how smart of an athlete he is and one of the reasons why we offered him when nobody else had offered him. He’s a football player.”