LOS ANGELES — When USC released its first depth chart for the 2023 season, true freshman Zachariah Branch’s standing as the team’s No. 3 slot receiver tempered some of the hype surrounding the program’s shiniest and newest pass-catching weapon. But there will be no subduing the expectations around Branch anymore — not after what he did in the Trojans’ 56-28 Week 0 victory over San Jose State.
Branch scored two touchdowns — one as a kickoff returner and one as receiver — while also proving elusive as a rusher and punt returner. By night’s end, he’d stolen the spotlight — at least temporarily — from USC quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. With his 232 all-purpose yards, Branch also helped overshadow lingering concerns about USC’s physicality along the line of scrimmage.
The Trojans don’t play a team ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 until Oct. 14 (No. 13 Notre Dame), and there will be plenty of time for second-year coach Lincoln Riley to refine the team’s rough edges, which were on display at times against a respectable Mountain West foe. But any team with enough talent to list Branch at third on its depth chart should be able to use that skill to compensate for its deficiencies in other areas. That was certainly USC’s story against the Spartans.
An early foreshadowing of Branch’s breakout performance came on USC’s first play from scrimmage, when Williams lateraled to the 5-foot-10 speedster, who was credited with a 12-yard rush. From there, he was off to the races.
Branch the returner
Branch, the No. 7 overall player and No. 1 receiver in the 2023 recruiting class by 247Sports, was clocked at a blazing 10.33 seconds in the 100-meter dash while running track in high school. That speed made him a natural candidate to return kicks for a USC team that was not particularly explosive in the return game last season.
He validated Riley’s trust in him to fill that role when he put the Trojans ahead 42-21 on a 96-yard kickoff return with 1:34 left in the third quarter. It marked the first time since Adoree’ Jackson in 2014 that a USC freshman has returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
Even before that game-breaking play, Branch showed his prowess on special teams: His first punt return went for 12 yards in the second quarter, setting up USC near midfield for a touchdown drive. Then, midway through the third quarter, he busted a 35-yard return to put the Trojans in great field position for what become a touchdown drive.
But the unquestioned highlight came when he brought the crowd of 63,411 to its feet while weaving through defenders for a touchdown return that gave USC an insurmountable edge.
“I thought he did a good job not trying to do too much, which guys in their first game sometimes will do,” Riley said. “I thought his patience, especially on the return, you saw a lot of patience there which was key.”
Branch the receiver
Given the wealth of skill on USC’s roster and Branch’s placement on the depth chart, it was fair to wonder how many targets he would receive in his collegiate debut. But it didn’t take long for Williams and Branch to demonstrate that they’ve already established excellent rapport.
With San Jose State trailing just 14-7 in the second quarter and USC facing a third-and-7 near midfield, Williams found Branch wide open in for an 18-yard gain to keep an eventual scoring drive alive. In the third quarter, Williams hit Branch in the flat and let his wideout do the rest as he skated through defenders for a 25-yard touchdown.
Branch finished with four catches for 58 yards and a touchdown, tying him for the team lead in receptions. Arizona transfer Dorian Singer, along with returners such as Tahj Washington, Mario Williams and Brenden Rice, will command plenty of targets this season. But if Week 0 was any indication, Branch will be there among them as one of Williams’ most-trusted targets.
“I didn’t really have any expectations,” Branch said. “Coach Riley and the rest of the staff just told me to go out there and don’t try to do too much, execute your job and I mean the rest will follow. I was blessed enough to get those opportunities and I just tried to capitalize off of them.”
Worth the hype
Branch’s performance also stood out because of USC’s recent spotty track record with prized prospects. The Trojans are still waiting for former five-stars like sophomore cornerback Domani Jackson and junior defensive end Korey Foreman to reach their potential after they topped USC’s last two recruiting classes. The program’s top-ranked 2020 prospect, receiver Gary Bryant Jr., transferred to Oregon this season after making 53 catches over three seasons.
Like those three, Branch was the program’s highest-ranked prospect in his class; however, there will be no waiting around for Branch to make an impact. One game into his college career, Branch hit the fast-track to stardom as a multi-faceted weapon capable of making an already lethal offense even more difficult to defend.