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Zachariah Branch Shines as Freshman Wide Receiver, Adding to USC’s Abundance of Talent


LOS ANGELES — USC’s first depth chart for the 2023 season listed true freshman Zachariah Branch as the No. 3 slot receiver, which tempered some of the excitement around the team’s newest pass-catching weapon. However, after Branch’s performance in the Trojans’ 56-28 victory over San Jose State, there are no doubts about his talent anymore.

Branch scored two touchdowns and showcased his versatility as a rusher, receiver, and punt returner. He stole the spotlight from USC quarterback Caleb Williams with his 232 all-purpose yards, easing concerns about the team’s physicality along the line of scrimmage.

Although USC’s upcoming schedule doesn’t include any preseason AP Top 25 teams until October, having a player like Branch on the depth chart should compensate for any deficiencies in other areas. That was evident in their game against San Jose State.

The game’s first play saw Branch receive a lateral from Williams and rush for a 12-yard gain, foreshadowing his breakout performance.

Branch the returner

Branch, ranked No. 7 overall and No. 1 receiver in the 2023 recruiting class by 247Sports, has exceptional speed, evidenced by his 10.33-second 100-meter dash in high school. This speed made him an ideal kickoff returner for USC, a team that lacked explosiveness in the return game last season.

Branch proved his worth as a returner when he scored a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown, putting the Trojans ahead 42-21 in the third quarter. He became the first USC freshman since 2014 to achieve this feat.

But even before that game-changing play, Branch demonstrated his skills on special teams by returning punts for significant yardage, setting up scoring drives for USC.

The highlight of the game was Branch’s thrilling touchdown return, which electrified the crowd of 63,411.

“I thought he did a good job not trying to do too much, which guys in their first game sometimes will do,” said USC coach Lincoln Riley. “I thought his patience, especially on the return, you saw a lot of patience there which was key.”

Branch the receiver

Considering the talent on USC’s roster, it was uncertain how many opportunities Branch would receive in his collegiate debut. However, it didn’t take long for Branch and Williams to establish a strong connection.

In the second quarter, Williams found Branch for an 18-yard gain on a critical third down, extending a scoring drive. In the third quarter, Williams hit Branch with a pass in the flat, and Branch maneuvered past defenders for a 25-yard touchdown.

Branch finished the game with four catches for 58 yards and a touchdown, tying him for the team lead in receptions. While other talented players like Dorian Singer and Tahj Washington will demand targets this season, Branch has already proven to be one of Williams’ most reliable options.

“I didn’t really have any expectations,” said Branch. “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.”

Living up to the Hype

Branch’s performance stands out due to USC’s history with highly touted prospects. In recent years, the team has had mixed success with top recruits, with some failing to reach their potential or transferring to other programs. However, there are no doubts about Branch’s impact. After just one game, he has become a dynamic weapon for USC’s offense, adding to their already potent attack.

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