THE SOUND IS unmistakable, but Zachariah Branch refuses to hear it. Before blockers become blurs in his peripheral vision, the true freshman enters a state of silence. Once the whistle blows and the opposing kicker launches the ball into the air, Branch is focused on too many other things to worry about the noise.
The opposing team’s formation. The potential route he’ll take. The blockers in front of him. Even the way the ball comes off the kicker’s foot. He has learned that it’s all too important to miss if he hopes his feet will touch the end zone by the end of it all.
The sound, however, is only growing louder.
It first begins before the play has even started. Through three games this season, the crowd inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has already learned to not look away when it comes to punts and kickoffs. Instead, the noise slowly brews once the 19-year-old enters the field and jogs to his spot near the end zone for a kickoff or well behind the line of scrimmage for a punt.
Once the ball is in the air, the anticipation turns into its own unique sound, a collective holding of breath that gives way to a rising “Whooooooaaaa” when the ball is in Branch’s hands and he makes his first move.
Often, that first move isn’t to just run full speed ahead. If the time and the blocks allow it, Branch will take an extra second to survey the field again, building up further anticipation for what he’ll do before he takes off. He’ll make a move left, another move right — unafraid to even go backwards if he needs to — while USC’s special teams try to part the sea of defenders. By now, they all know all they need to do is open up a crease.
“He’s just dynamic,” said safety Max Williams, who is a blocker on special teams. “He’s a playmaker. He’s got the ability to make players miss and he’s the fastest guy on the field.”
Once Branch finds an open window, it’s go time. By then, the crowd is in a frenzy, the Coliseum’s high, curved walls magnifying their loud pandemonium, as they experience what Branch has already become known for, what his father, Sheva, and his high school coach all saw right away: electrifying speed.
It took Branch one game into his college career (nine touches, 232 all-purpose yards, including a 96-yard kickoff return) to become the most exciting player on the field not named Caleb Williams. A handful of moments are all it took to make the Coliseum sing every time the ball is heading in his direction, and only a few plays for opposing teams to fear him even if they haven’t stopped kicking to him.
“They haven’t learned their lesson,” wide receiver Brenden Rice said.
“He’s a freshman,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “But I hope they keep kicking to him.”
Branch has four touchdowns in three games — two receiving, one kickoff return and one punt return — and is the only player in the sport this year to have one in each of those categories. In total, the freshman has 110 receiving yards, 158 punt return yards (65 more than USC had all last season) and 125 kickoff return yards.
If it feels like Branch was destined to play in this venue and for this team, and all you have to do is listen to him and his dad tell his story to realize that he was.
“That first touchdown in the Coliseum, I’ve been dreaming about that since I was 8 or 9,” Branch told ESPN in a recent interview. “To have it all happen so quickly, it’s been surreal.”
GROWING UP NEAR Las Vegas, Sheva and Renee Branch always encouraged their two sons to write down their goals. No dream was too big or too out of reach to end up on the chalkboard walls that made up their childhood bedroom. After all, they were the ones who took them to USC games as kids, touring them through the campus and the Coliseum, asking them whether they could see themselves playing there.
Over time, those chalkboard walls became not just a depiction of their goals, but also a record of how they spent their childhoods. In short: excelling at nearly every sport they played and competing against each other. While Zion, the older by a year, hit an early growth spurt before Zachariah, the youngest stood out differently.
“Zach was always a ball of energy, always wanting to run around,” Sheva said. “And when it came to sports, he was electric.”
“I pretty much knew at, at a young age that, that I was pretty fast,” Zachariah said. “Probably like 4 or 5 years old.”
Between seeing Zachariah run up and down the field with ease in flag football and watching him hit a handful of inside-the-park home runs in baseball, it didn’t take long for Sheva to realize his youngest son had an extra gear, especially when he got Zachariah into track and field. In his first 60-meter race at 8 years old, he beat kids three years older than him with ease, not even knowing how to come off the blocks or any other technique.
“I just pointed and said, ‘You see that opening down there? Run as if you’re gonna run through that gate, so don’t stop before that line,'” Sheva said. “He ran and won the race, and it was kind of funny because he ran like an extra 20 yards past the finish line.”
Sheva, who works as a performance coach, believed in varying the sports Zachariah and Zion played, holding off on specializing in football until absolutely necessary. Even when they did play football, he had them switch off sides of the ball at halftime so they could play both defense and offense in the span of a game.
As Zachariah won track meets and kept producing explosive plays on the football field, Sheva continued to train his sons with agility and speed in mind. The track meets eventually stopped, but the type of training Zachariah would do to run 100 meters continued as he evolved into a wide receiver.
“The doctors could tell you how tall you’re going to be, but they’re not gonna tell you how fast they’re gonna be,” Sheva said he told his son, who now stands at 5-foot-10. “The first thing they’re gonna knock is the height of a receiver, I told him, but what they can’t take away is your speed, your strength and your IQ.”
From sixth grade on, Zachariah focused on working on ensuring those three traits were as good as they could be, studying route running as much as he would try to improve his strength. And by the time he entered his freshman season at Bishop Gorman High School, the work he had put in resulted in a spot on the varsity team right away and immediate touches on offense and, of course, special teams.
“Within the first couple practices you could see there’s just something different about him, how he practiced, how he played, his athletic ability,” Bishop Gorman coach Brent Browner said. “And he was only basically just getting out of eighth grade. You could see how great, how special he was going to be.”
Browner still recalls how one of Zachariah’s first touches as a high schooler was a bubble screen that put him in space and immediately turned into a touchdown. In that very same debut game, the freshman made a key revelation.
A punt was sent in his direction and, after the ball bounced a few times, Zachariah picked it up and immediately dodged a diving defender and ran up the left side. It quickly became clear he was running out of space and that side of the field was filled with opposing defenders. So Zachariah found space elsewhere, by turning around and running sideways and up the right side of the field. No one else even got close to touching him as he waltzed into the end zone.
“That’s when I knew lol,” Zachariah said of his returning prowess in a text accompanying the video of his highlight. “First high school game ever.”
Sheva said he estimates Zachariah had about 12 punt return touchdowns called back due to penalties. Regardless, those phantom returns had an effect: opposing teams began kicking away from him during kickoffs. So much so that when Zachariah returned a 96-yard kickoff for a score in his USC debut, it was his first kickoff return for a touchdown since eighth grade.
“He’s got elite speed for the NFL, not to mention college,” Browner said. “He’s in the 99 percentile. Of the world.”
Browner was so impressed with Zachariah early on that he began telling visiting college coaches about the ninth grader they should pay attention to. By the end of that season, Zachariah had at least one offer from a West Coast school. The speed was the selling point, but the entirety of his skill set was what eventually turned Zachariah into a five-star prospect who was the No. 1 receiver in his class.
“That’s the unique part about how good he is. Sometimes you get players that are really fast but not as quick and agile. Or sometimes they’re fast and quick, but don’t have the ability to lower their shoulder and go at a linebacker,” Browner said. “And then he’s not just a track guy. He can catch and run in space and turn into a running back if he has to. He’s doing it all, not at a normal level, but an elite level.”
It was clear then, to Browner and Sheva and those who watched him for years, that USC was going to get a player ready to make an elite first impression when given the chance.
SOME SEE SHADES of Adoree’ Jackson. Others see slight hints of Reggie Bush or faint vestiges of Devin Hester.
“I grew up watching Adoree’. I didn’t grow up in [Reggie Bush’s] era, but I watch Reggie a lot,” Zachariah said. “I watch his old highlights, try to take everything I can from it, try to dissect it, his demeanor, how he runs and his vision.”
USC running back Austin Jones sees Tavon Austin. But whatever your preferred comparison may be for him, one thing is certain: Much like those who saw him when he was coming up, everyone says they knew how good Zachariah would be from the moment they laid eyes on him.
“I was telling my dad when he got here in the spring. After the first practice, I told my pops, ‘This dude’s going to be the real deal,'” Jones said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
“In the spring, just seeing him on the ball, his speed,” fellow wide receiver Tahj Washington said. “Even though he was coming in as a freshman, he was already separating himself.”
“I knew right when he got on campus … in our speed drills, you could just tell he had a switch that he was different from other people,” tight end Lake McRee said. “I feel like he’s shown the whole world now what he can do. So I’m not too surprised.”
“The kid’s insane and I’ve been saying it since I got here,” running back MarShawn Lloyd said. “He’s very special.”
In the frenzy of the punt returns and kickoffs, what has already become an underrated part of Zachariah’s early tenure with USC is the flexibility he provides as a wide receiver. As wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons and Riley have pointed out, there’s a package of plays explicitly crafted to highlight Zachariah’s speed and agility. So far, we’ve seen mere glimpses of him catching screen passes and handoffs in space and making the most of them. In no time, Zachariah has become another tool quarterback Williams can use to power USC’s explosive offense.
“One thing that we preach with all of the receivers is catching the ball is your job. That’s the reason why you’re here,” Simmons said. “What you do with it after the catch increases your opportunities.”
The freshman has done just that. And yet, most of his opportunities so far have still primarily come when he’s the lone man in the backfield, waiting for a punt or a kick. If Zachariah’s methods for returning had been all speed and instinct up to this point, that has since changed arriving in Los Angeles. Pairing up with USC inside wide receivers coach Luke Huard has led to an approach that’s opened his eyes to the technique of the craft too.
“Seeing it off the kicker’s foot, if the ball’s gonna like die down, if it’s coming at a sharp angle, if it’s floating up a little bit and it might carry a little bit,” Zachariah explained. “Being aware of like which way the wind is blowing, if it’s to your back, if it’s towards the kicker, just knowing that it might sink a little bit or it might carry further. All of those things I’ve tried to learn about.”
Every game week, Zachariah and Huard scout the opposing kicker and punter, as well as the rest of the team on those special team plays, to pick up on any tendencies. For example, in the game against Nevada, he knew if two specific players lined up on one side of the field that was likely where the ball was going.
“The thing about him is he accelerates so quickly, gets to his top speed so quickly, it’s rare,” Huard said. “But as he’s gotten more comfortable in the system and in the preparation, he’s also been able to play free and be impactful right away.”
The way Zachariah has broken out in such a short time hasn’t just meant that teams are starting to avoid kicking to him. It also means coaches have given him more leeway to catch punts or kickoffs that may be typically better off going into the end zone. They all know that no matter how deep the ball may be hit, if Zachariah gets his hands on it, there’s a chance for some magic to happen.
“They said once that ball’s in my hand, trust it,” Zachariah said. “And go.”
It’s that potential that causes the Coliseum crowd to hush in disappointment when Zachariah doesn’t get the chance to return a kick and stand up in excitement when they kick it behind him and he still does. During USC’s third game against Stanford, Sheva began noticing it too. While he was first preoccupied watching formations and open lanes his son could run through, he began to hear how the crowd’s noise grew in eagerness for what his son — the one who once sat in those stands as a kid and tried to imagine himself out there — might do.