Gold: A star is born at the Los Angeles Coliseum as Zachariah Branch steals the show
It’s a strange thing, seeing a shooting star land in a college football stadium. And truth be told, if you dared blink on Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum, you may have missed it yourself.
In fact, Jamil Muhammad just did that.
It was a San Jose State special teams player who had to let Muhammad know that his teammate, Zachariah Branch, had just passed both of them by on his way to USC history.
“I had my back turned,” Muhammad said, “and the guy I was blocking just says, ‘Oh, he gone,”
The scary thing for Pac-12 — err, make that Big 10 fans – is that Branch is here to stay.
College football’s most famous player sat in the USC press conference on Saturday night after a ho-hum 56-28 win, and he might as well have been have been invisible.
It’s not the Caleb Williams was unimpressive on Saturday night in the Trojans’ Week Zero victory over the visiting Spartans. He was 18-of-25 passing for 278 yards and 4 touchdowns, including a 76-yard scoring pass to Tahj Washington that happened after he bumbled a snap.
But on Saturday night, the biggest star in the Coliseum was Branch, the 5-star true freshman and one of the top prospects in the country, who electrified the crowd with a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown, to go along with 4 receptions for 58 yards and a score and 3 punt returns for 66 yards. That makes 232 all-purpose yards for his debut. He became USC’s first true freshman to score on a kickoff return and through the air since Adoree Jackson in the 2014 Holiday Bowl, which was USC’s last game of the year.
Zachariah Branch 96 yards to the house 🏠 pic.twitter.com/KXNjhVmeRL
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) August 27, 2023
This was Branch’s first, in Week Zero, no less.
“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.”
He was swagger in motion, patience personified. He was of the moment and in the moment. On a team with more wattage than a lightbulb factory, he shined the brightest.
It was, in a word, breathtaking.
The comparisons were bound to begin the second Branch made his first shimmy, but within seconds, X (formerly known as Twitter) was aflame with Reggie Bush comparisons.
Jordan Moore, USC’s Chief Content Officer and a radio host for the Trojans — as well as their men’s basketball play-by-play voice — was a student at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications when Bush was a freshman.
He remembers watching the Helix High product take a flamethrower to the Coliseum before his 19th birthday.
But for Moore, it wasn’t Bush who Branch reminded him of, but Jackson, now a star cornerback and return specialist for the New York Giants.
“I always wondered what it would have looked like if Adoree had just played offense,” Moore said. “That’s the last player, in this building, who when the ball was in his hands on a punt return or a kick return or on offense, where you just go, ‘Hold on, something special can happen.’ Everybody goes back to Reggie Bush — there was nobody who could take your breath away like Reggie.”
Let us not forget, though: Even the great Bush and even the great Jackson did not have a debut like this.
First collegiate TD from former 5-star Plus+ WR Zachariah Branch, one of the more electric HS prospects we’ve seen in a while https://t.co/uLWebdkBEC https://t.co/WG84G0GRBK pic.twitter.com/W00AIkw5G4
— Charles Power (@CharlesPower) August 27, 2023
For comparison, Jackson had 3 receptions for 36 yards and a score, plus one punt return for 10 yards and an assisted tackle in his first game.
Bush had 5 rushes for 9 yards and one catch for negative-6 yards.
And Branch? This was like throwing down 50 in your first basketball game. This is acing your first test in kindergarten. This was making a Dodgers debut and hitting two home runs, stealing home and maybe even mopping up the 9th inning.
It was amazing.
And for USC players, coaches and fans, somewhat expected.
The second he stepped foot in Heritage Hall for the first time as a USC player as an early entrant after a sensational career at Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High, Branch was already building his lore. In the spring, Riley told reporters that Branch impressed him. But seeing him on the field on USC’s first drive, with a horde of older, also talented targets waiting to rotate in, was proof alone. He got the first touch of the game! That should’ve told us something.
That kind of platform, that kind of responsibility, that kind of spotlight? As a true freshman at USC? That is reserved for only the best of the best, the wisest of the wise, and the truly unique true freshman, one who can handle the magnitude of the moment their very first time under the lights.
After his first touchdown as a Trojan, a 25-yard scoring reception from Williams midway through the 3rd quarter, Branch busted out a celebration in honor of Cristiano Ronaldo, someone with home he’s grown quite familiar over the past couple months. Branch has only recently picked up the video game FIFA soccer, but he’s quickly taken to the Portuguese hero.
After the kickoff return touchdown, the celebration was a little more muted, and as he ran to the USC sideline, Branch was accosted by Williams, the returning Heisman Trophy winner.
“You are awesome, boy,” Williams was caught telling the fabulous freshman.
ZACHARIAH BRANCH WHAT A DEBUT🔥
— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 27, 2023
It reminded me of all that was great and can be again at USC. The Trojans were at their best when they were truly astonishing each other. Game recognizes game matters more when you’re competing for national championships.
Does USC have the defense for that? That’s a story for another day. Actually many stories for many days.
On Saturday night with a Week Zero spotlight the size of Montana, Branch was the story.
And if this was Chapter 1, can you even imagine how good this book is going to be?
A star in the making, electric USC freshman Zachariah Branch. pic.twitter.com/dF4lKW7iVV
— Jon Gold (@ByJonGold) August 27, 2023