While many emphasize his speed, Brent Browner observes Zachariah Branch for a different reason. “When he starts to slow down,” explained Branch’s head coach at the influential Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, “that’s when something extraordinary is about to unfold.” Merging patience, foresight, and certainly, breathtaking speed, Branch kicked off USC’s season with a dazzling display, scoring two touchdowns. The rookie receiver turned heads and left opponents stumbling in his wake.
Accumulating an impressive 232 all-purpose yards, Branch stood shoulder to shoulder as the team’s leader with four receptions, amassing 58 yards and clinching one touchdown. Additionally, he seized a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Las Vegas native initiated this special teams spectacle by almost coming to a halt as he assessed the coverage. He then sprinted like a streak of cardinal and gold lightning up the field. With a sharp cut towards the sideline, an adversary was left sprawling on the ground, futilely grasping at Branch’s ankles. Even Jamil Muhammad, USC’s rush end who was blocking on the play, couldn’t help but turn to watch, realizing that no one could match Branch’s speed.
Even after experiencing Branch’s prowess firsthand, San José State risked another kick to him on the subsequent drive. Spectators at the Coliseum gasped as he eluded yet another tackler and surged forward for a 19-yard gain. Browner chuckled heartily and remarked, “I’m amazed anyone still dares to kick the ball to him. I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever give him the ball.”
Browner has witnessed numerous teams attempt and falter. Even when adversaries attempt to play it safe by forcing Branch to field a bouncing kick, the former five-star prospect remains a threat.
In Browner’s recollection, the pinnacle moment was a 93-yard punt return touchdown Branch executed during the 2021 state semifinal game between the top-ranked Gaels and second-ranked Liberty. Fielding a high-bouncing punt, Branch veered left after a slight shoulder dip, evading the first tackler who fell to the ground. He then outpaced Liberty’s coverage squad to the sideline. As he neared the end zone, Branch blew a kiss to the crowd.
With this memory still vivid, Browner found familiarity in Branch’s gesture as he soaked up the cheers from fans after his recent performance. The receiver had consistently elevated the ordinary into the extraordinary, even in moments without fans to shower him with admiration.
“We watched him play for four consecutive years, and we also watched his practice sessions,” Browner reflected. “His approach to practice and his work ethic made it clear that success at that level was inevitable.”
The 19-year-old made a swift adjustment to college life, enrolling early for spring practice. Despite experiencing the typical “freshman struggles,” as USC head coach Lincoln Riley acknowledged, Branch impressed teammates with his tenacity during practice. Despite his stature at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, he regularly outperformed defenders in jumping for the ball and wrestling it from their grasp.
This athletic prowess appears to be a family trait. Zachariah and his older brother Zion, a redshirt freshman safety at USC, hail from a lineage linked to former Oakland Raiders wide receiver and Pro Football Hall of Famer Cliff Branch. Their father, Shéva Branch, a former San José State fullback, now serves as a coach specializing in strength, agility, and speed. Zachariah revealed that he recorded a 4.38-second 40-yard dash during his senior year at an Under Armour camp. His 100-meter time of 10.33 seconds, set during his sophomore year, still stands as a Bishop Gorman record.
Beside Branch at the post-game podium, linebacker Mason Cobb raised an eyebrow at the mention of his blazing track performance. Senior receiver Tahj Washington shrugged and commented, “You don’t need to describe [his speed] once you witness it daily.”
Throughout his high school career, the only practice opponent capable of challenging Zachariah was Zion, according to Browner. Following Zion’s graduation, the one-on-one matchups against Power 5-bound defensive backs like Kodi Decambra (Oregon), Justyn Rhett (Georgia), and Jeremiah Hughs (Louisiana State) grew so intense that bystanders might have assumed the teammates were at odds.
Yet, off the field, they remained the best of friends.
Browner explained, “You must be able to flip that switch for practice. It’s easy when the stadium’s packed, but during practice, it’s just you and your opponent. If you can elevate your practice to that level, you’ll succeed.”
While fans may marvel at Branch’s highlight reels, Pac-12 Networks crafted a special segment showcasing his performance against San José State shortly after the game. However, Browner cautioned, “Based on what we witnessed in practice, you haven’t seen the full extent of his capabilities.”
Muhammad exclaimed, “Zach is the real deal. Watching him is exhilarating… It’ll be fascinating to witness his growth and improvement because he’s destined for greatness.”
Despite his competitive spirit, Branch exhibits an entirely different demeanor outside of competition, Browner noted. Teammates at USC admire his constant smile and relaxed disposition. Even after his breakout performance, Muhammad predicted that Branch would likely return home to indulge in video games. Inspired by playing “FIFA” for several months, his celebratory gesture after his first touchdown imitated Cristiano Ronaldo.
Branch’s infectious positivity even uplifts seasoned players like senior offensive lineman Justin Dedich. Dedich admitted that he can’t help but soften when he hears Branch’s approach and his inquiry, “Dee-dee, you good?”
The team captain shared, “I’m drawn to his daily enthusiasm; it brings a smile to my face. It’s just something that’s evident on the field. His positive energy and attitude correlate with his fierce performance.”
Teammates have debated for months about Branch’s closest comparison. Muhammad sees shades of former Oregon standout De’Anthony Thomas, while others liken him to a young Tavon Austin, the West Virginia two-time All-American.
In response to such lofty parallels, Branch nonchalantly laughs. He’s confident he still has more to reveal.
Original source: This story was initially published in the Los Angeles Times.