Last year he cheered on his teammates. Now, Zion Branch teammates are eager to return the favor.
“Yes, Z!” Safety Calen Bullock and rush end Romello Height roared after a recent USC practice as Branch attracted a small group of reporters.
Branch could be in for much more cheering this fall as the 6-foot-1 safety prepares for his long-awaited USC debut. After suffering a season-ending knee injury at fall camp last season, Branch is healthy and fighting for playtime in a USC high school hoping to bounce back from last year’s disappointment.
The redshirt freshman toiled in the gym to physically prepare for spring training and pored over the hours to stay mentally sharper than ever. It was the longest time Branch had ever spent outside of football.
With sparkling plays like a pick-six in USC’s first fall scrimmage, Branch proves it was worth the wait.
“I feel like I really had a chance to improve my technical skills,” said Branch, the older brother of much-vaunted USC freshman receiver Zachariah Branch. “[I] I’ve been able to improve my strength in the weight room and definitely in the movie room, spend a whole year just learning mentally and watching these great safety measures and great DBs that we have around us.”
With a strong work ethic and a focused personality off the field, Branch “checks every box,” said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. However, with the former four-star recruit only able to train non-contact in the spring following his injury, the coaches still had questions.
Branch answered them forcefully by starring in the team’s first scrimmage when he forced a fumble and returned the interception for a touchdown. Head coach Lincoln Riley highlighted him as an outstanding player during the training session.
“He’s made as much progress in 14 days as anyone I’ve ever been with,” Grinch said Monday, less than two weeks before USC’s season opener against San Jose State. “It was really exciting to see. Our thanks go to him and to a man whose further development we look forward to. So I think he will play a role with us.”
The size of the role is still up for debate. Branch is in secure position among returnees Jaylin Smith, Bryson Shaw and Max Williams, all of whom are vying for spots alongside Bullock, an All-Conference junior.
The competition is “tough,” Smith admitted, but nothing is stronger than the bond between teammates.
“I wouldn’t consider it a competition; I would look at it more as a fraternity,” said Smith, a junior who started nine games with 37 tackles last season. “We’re out here bringing energy and juice, but we know what’s at stake.”
For Branch, it’s an opportunity to make a dream come true. Growing up in Las Vegas, he always imagined attending USC, where he starred in the role of powerhouse Bishop Gorman. Even after the injury delayed his debut, Branch patrolled the sidelines at a few home games in full protective gear.
Finally being able to use these pads on the field would be a “dream come true,” Branch said.
“Now to get out of there and really run out of that tunnel and keep up with my teammates,” Branch said, “that’s going to be something unique.”