Everyone focuses on the speed. Brent Browner watches Zachariah Branch for the opposite.
“When he starts slowing down,” Branch’s head coach at Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman said, “something’s going to happen.”
Combining patience, vision and yes, breakneck speed, Branch opened USC’s season with an electric, two-touchdown performance that had the freshman receiver turning heads and taking ankles.
Branch racked up 232 all-purpose yards, tied for the team lead with four receptions for 58 yards and one touchdown and scored off a 96-yard kickoff return. The Las Vegas native began the special teams highlight by slowing to a near stop while surveying the coverage, then accelerating into a cardinal and gold blur straight up the field. An aggressive cut toward the sideline left one opponent falling to the ground while grasping helplessly at Branch’s ankles. USC rush end Jamil Muhammad, who was blocking on the play, excitedly turned his head around to watch when his opponent realized there was no one who could catch Branch.
Yet even after getting burned by Branch once, San José State punted the ball back to him on the next drive. Fans at the Coliseum gasped when he shook another would-be tackler and wiggled up field for 19 yards.
“I’m surprised anybody ever kicks him the ball,” Browner said with a hearty laugh. “I would never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever kick him the ball.”
Browner has already seen too many teams try and fail. Even when opponents hope to avoid disaster by forcing Branch to field a kick on a bounce, the former five-star prospect is dangerous.
The 93-yard punt return Branch took back for a touchdown in the 2021 state semifinal game between the top-ranked Gaels and second-ranked Liberty remains Branch’s top play in Browner’s mind. The receiver collected the punt off a high bounce, dipped his right shoulder and cut back to his left, leaving the first man toppling to the field. He outran Liberty’s coverage team to the sideline. One defender tripped and did a somersault. Another slipped and ended flat on his back.
As he ran into the end zone on the punt return, Branch blew a kiss toward the crowd.
With that play still fresh in Browner’s mind two years later, watching Branch approach the corner of the end zone with his arms outstretched soaking up the cheers from fans felt familiar to his former coach. The receiver has long been making the exceptional look routine, even when fans aren’t there to shower him with praise.
“We watched him for four straight years play, but also we watched him practice,” Browner said. “The way that he practices and the work ethic, it was going to be just something that’s just going to happen for him at that level too.”
The 19-year-old adjusted quickly to college as he enrolled early for spring practice. While he was susceptible to “freshman struggles,” as USC head coach Lincoln Riley said, Branch still wowed teammates with his competitiveness in practice. Even at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, he made outjumping and wrestling the ball away from defenders into a routine.
Then there was the speed.
It runs in the family as Zachariah and his older brother Zion, a redshirt freshman safety at USC, are great nephews of former Oakland Raiders wide receiver and Pro Football Hall of Famer Cliff Branch. Their father Shéva Branch played fullback at San José State and is now a strength, agility and speed coach. Zachariah said after Saturday’s game that he clocked a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at an Under Armour camp as a senior. His 100-meter time of 10.33 seconds is still the Bishop Gorman record after he set it as a sophomore.
Next to Branch on the dais after the game, linebacker Mason Cobb’s eyebrows shot up at the mention of the blazing track time.
“You don’t have to put [his speed] into words once you’re seeing it every day,” senior receiver Tahj Washington said with a shrug.
For several seasons in high school, the only person who could guard Zachariah in practice was Zion, Browner said. When Zion graduated, the one-on-one reps with Power 5-bound defensive backs Kodi Decambra (Oregon), Justyn Rhett (Georgia) and Jeremiah Hughs (Louisiana State) got so heated that onlookers would think that the teammates didn’t like each other at all.
Off the field, they were all best of friends.
“You have to be able to turn that switch on for practice,” Browner said. “It’s easy to have that for a game, it’s easy when you have all that crowd stuff, but at practice, nobody’s there but you and the other person. So if you can flip that switch for practice and you can practice at that level, you can make it.”
Fans may gawk at Branch’s highlight reels. The Pac-12 Networks cut together a special edition dedicated to his plays against San José State one day after the game. But “you haven’t seen anything close to what he’s able to do based on what we watched him do in practice,” Browner said.
“Zach is like that for real,” Muhammad said. “It’s exciting watching him. … It’s going to be wild to see him grow and continue to get better, because he’s definitely going to get better.”
Although he’s a fierce competitor, Branch is “a whole different dude off the field,” Browner said. Teammates at USC love him for his ever-present smile and easy-going nature. Even after the breakout performance, Muhammad predicted Branch would likely just go home and play some video games. He’s been playing “FIFA” for a few months and it inspired the Cristiano Ronaldo celebration that marked his first touchdown.
Branch’s light personality lifts the spirits of even grizzled veterans like senior offensive lineman Justin Dedich, who can’t help but soften when he hears Branch approaching to ask, “Dee-dee, you good?”
“I just love the energy every day, it brings a smile to my face,” the team captain said. “That’s just one of those things. It just shows on the field. It correlates, just his positive energy, his positive attitude and he plays like a beast.”
Teammates have debated for months whom Branch most resembles. Muhammad likens him to former Oregon star De’Anthony Thomas. Others think of Branch like a young Tavon Austin, the two-time All-American at West Virginia.
To the lofty comparisons, Branch just responds with a nonchalant laugh. He’s got more to show.