USC signed one of the best defensive backs in the 2022 class, got its hopes up about what he might be able to do right away, and then had to watch him grind through a lengthy rehab process that cost him his entire freshman season.

A “freak” accident on a routine play in summer workouts sidelined safety Zion Branch for all of fall camp and caused him to miss the entire 2022 season. He dressed for a game last year, but the debut awaits in 2023.

“Like getting a Christmas present and knowing you can’t use it for a whole year,” head coach Lincoln Riley joked on Saturday when he met with reporters. “He fills out the uniform pretty well. And he’s such a great kid. Checks all the boxes physically.

“He was one of those guys that, last year before he hurt his knee … you always can tell some of the young guys that are gonna have a chance to contribute early because the old guys start talking about them. Like right when we get there, there’s a bit of a buzz. He had generated that among some of our older players.”

USC returns a deep group of safeties, led by All-American Calen Bullock, season-long starter Max Williams, and Bryson Shaw. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Branch force his way into the rotation.

“I feel 100,” Branch said Friday. “I’m good to go right now, you know. It was a long season, so this whole season, offseason, I was just training to get back and rehabbing. So, now I’m feeling great right now. Good to go.”

Branch is physically impressive for such a young player.

“Impressive. He’s got an impressive size, strength, and speed combination,” Riley said. “He’s a really smart kid. He got a unique perspective last year and it’s been cool to see him use it. He’s done a really nice job so far.”

Branch said the rehab process taught him just how much he loved the game. He’s itching to play, and he doesn’t care where.

“I feel like I can help all around,” Branch said. “Last year getting to watch the defense really just helped me see a vision of where I can see myself contribute at. But, anywhere the coaches need me, I feel like I can fill those spots.”

Of course, his head coach appreciates the mindset Branch has had throughout the process.

“He’s handled the injury really well,” Riley said. “He’s stayed really positive. He’s stayed really engaged, which is tough to do, especially for a young guy. He’s been able to do everything this spring but the full contact. So, he’s still able to do 75, 80% of what we’ve been doing, which is great. I know he’s been dying to get in there in team and do some full-contact.