Coach Geoff Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude approached redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Branden Mack in early August to tell him “his time is now.”
Former wide receivers Adonis Jennings and Keith Kirkwood, who graduated after the 2017 season and are on NFL rosters, each scored seven touchdowns for the Owls last season. Mack has a chance for more playing time after their departures.
“We need someone with good length that Branden has [to replace Jennings and Kirkwood],” Collins said. “I am really excited about the plays he has been making this preseason. And hopefully, he will be able to fill the void left by two single-digit players.”
Last season, Mack’s contributions mainly came on special teams. He earned the team’s APEX Predator Special Teams Player of the Game awards for his play against Connecticut and Central Florida. On offense, Mack recorded two receptions for 23 yards.
An increased role this season can be attributed to the vast improvements made by Mack this offseason. Mack worked on getting faster and stronger and improving his route running, he said.
“Before that conversation, he had been OK,” Patenaude said. “But, Branden has really responded. The past few days, the ball has been finding him down the field. I think his confidence is growing with every catch.”
Coming into last season, Mack weighed 208 pounds at preseason camp. Before this year’s camp, Mack weighed in at more than 220 pounds, Collins said.
Mack has also become a faster player this year. The Owls track players’ speeds with technology attached to their equipment. Mack had a top speed of 18.1 miles per hour at camp in 2017, Collins said. Through two weeks of summer camp, Mack has averaged a speed of 18.75 mph, Collins added.
“[Mack] started to come along at the end of last year,” Collins said. “I think it is a good thing that the more muscle you put on, the more strength you have and developed you are, the faster you are. I am really proud of him and how he has shaped into a big-time receiver.”
Mack has done a great job of creating separation and catching the ball at its highest point, wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. In all the practices open to the media, Mack hasn’t been seen dropping a pass.
Two plays made by Mack stand out in the first few weeks of August practice. On Aug. 9, Mack ran a route down the right sideline and boxed out senior cornerback Rock Ya-Sin to make a jumping catch. During last Saturday’s practice at Lower Cape May Regional High School in South Jersey, Mack outran the defenders covering him to haul in a 45-plus-yard touchdown pass from redshirt-sophomore quarterback Anthony Russo.
“He’s been an absolute pleasure to coach,” Collins said. “Everyone sees the hard work he has put in, and we are beginning to see the results. The whole organization is fired up, defensive backs and all the coaches included.”
Senior safety Delvon Randall said Mack is one of the offensive players who has stood out thus far. Standing at 6 feet, 5 inches tall, Mack has excelled using his frame to attack the ball when it is in the air, Randall said.
“When the quarterback throws it downfield and you can come down with it, you tend to get more thrown to you,” Patenaude said. “If a quarterback looks downfield and sees [Mack] on one side and a different receiver that may have dropped a few passes on the other side, [the quarterback] will throw it to Branden. The way he is playing is going to get him more exposure, which will only help with his confidence.”
Mack said his performance during the past week has been a boost to his confidence.
“If I just keep going out there and making plays, it tells me when it’s crunch time, I can really make a play,” Mack said.