The freshman had shown flash, had drawn murmurs, sure, but he was buried.

Third on the list, ZACHARIAH BRANCH in black ink at wide receiver on USC’s first depth chart entering Week 0 against San Jose State. And what else could’ve been expected? Mario Williams existed, and Tahj Washington hadn’t gone anywhere, and Dorian Singer was in from Arizona. This room, outside wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons said, had better be the best in the nation. So there seemed little place for a freshman, even one as dynamically talented as top 2023 recruit Branch, even one who’d drawn praise from Simmons like so:

“From a talent standpoint, he’s different.”

But hours later, after Branch surprisingly lined up at slot receiver to start against San Jose State, that talent unleashed in the third quarter of a 56-28 USC blowout win, the true freshman with the pearly-white grin snaring a pass from USC quarterback Williams and darting into the end zone for his first Trojans touchdown. He hit the Cristiano Ronaldo “suiii” in the end zone after, a youthful explosion of joy that came, to the postgame-podium smiles of head coach Riley and quarterback Williams, from playing the video game “FIFA.”

It was momentous. It was also nothing compared to what’d come next.

At the end of the third quarter, after San Jose State receiver Nick Nash made a ridiculous one-handed bobbling touchdown grab to set up a kickoff, Branch caught a return a few yards out from the end zone and…slowed. Jogged. Surveyed, blockers lining up in front of him, ambling about for a few yards like a cheetah luring a deer into a false sense of security.

And then he just downshifted. Jets, in a split second, seemed to roar from Branch’s feet as he burst up the middle, juking to his left to make two Spartans crash into each other, bursting down the left sideline before cutting back to the middle for a victory lap of a 96-yard touchdown return.

He dropped the ball as the Coliseum rocked and held his arms outstretched, palms up, as he neared the stands.

“Once I touched that end zone,” Branch beamed, “the crowd tapped me up a little bit.”

Truly, it’s downright impossible to overshadow Williams, who picked right back up where he left off with a magic-casting 2022 season in the second quarter, recovering a fumble on a snap miscommunication and in the same motion flinging a long dart to Washington for a 76-yard touchdown. And the USC quarterback laid little mercy on San Jose State’s defense in the inaugural game of a chase for another Heisman throwing for 278 yards and four touchdowns.

But Branch left the most invigorating impression, stands of over 63,000 building into a roar every time he touched the ball, taking a punt on the next return after his 96-yard-streak and weaving his way through a sea of Trojans. No longer buried. A star had arrived.

“It’s great to see a young guy like that come in,” Washington said of Branch postgame, “and know what he’s working for, and knows what he wants to do.”

It was scintillating — and nearly enough to distract from an ugly defensive start. In the first half Saturday, outside of some legitimately solid stretches of play — strong pressure from Oklahoma State transfer linebacker and now-captain Mason Cobb and some eye-popping bursts off the line from Georgia State transfer Jamil Muhammad — the line looked limp and secondary seemed splintered against a quick-hitting San Jose State attack. A 28-yard run on a 3rd-and-22 from Cordeiro led to a second-quarter touchdown, and a complete breakdown led to a wide-open touchdown grab from Nash to end the half.

USC’s offense shone as a whole, senior Austin Jones running for a pair of scores and four different Trojans receivers hauling in a touchdown. But that was never the question for the Trojans this year. And the bad taste from last year’s defensive collapse still lingers.

“Everybody’s gonna write the narrative after the first game,” Riley said postgame. “And listen, it’s going to be a climb.”

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