LOS ANGELES — Entering a highly-anticipated 2023 season, much of the talk around USC these days is about the present. And rightfully so; led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams and a veteran roster, the Trojans have a legitimate shot to contend for their first College Football Playoff berth.
But USC’s season-opening 56-28 victory over San Jose State at the Coliseum Saturday was as much about the future as it was about the present.
Sure, Williams was his usual spectacular self, throwing 278 yards and four touchdowns while watching the majority of the fourth quarter from the sideline. And the defense, while still leaving plenty to be desired, showed some flashes of improvement from last season’s subpar product.
But perhaps the biggest story Saturday evening was USC fans being introduced to a new star in Zachariah Branch.
In his first college football game, the true freshman wide receiver racked up 232 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. He became the first USC player to record a receiving touchdown and a kick return touchdown in the same game since Adoree’ Jackson against Notre Dame in 2016.
“It’s not freshmen, it’s not seniors in there, it’s just USC Football players,” Riley said of Branch’s debut. “I thought he did a good job not trying to do too much, which guys in their first game sometimes will do.”
“Especially on the return . . . you saw a lot of patience there, which was key.”
Branch was one of the crown jewels of Riley’s first full recruiting class at USC. (USC’s 2022 class was significantly smaller in size due to Riley’s arrival just weeks prior to signing day.) His electric debut serves as a representation of how Riley is looking to build for the long run at USC.
With the Trojans headed to the Big Ten next year and Williams almost certainly off to the NFL, Riley and his staff will need to continue to acquire elite talent in order to compete at the highest level of the sport. USC’s highly-touted class of true freshmen will look to serve as the building blocks in that process.
Branch was far from the only freshman to make an impact for the Trojans on Saturday. Linebacker Tackett Curtis and offensive lineman Alani Noa both started in their USC debuts, while tight end Duce Robinson, defensive lineman Elijah Hughes, and running back Quinten Joyner all saw significant playing time and made an impact on the game.
But it was Branch who stole the show. One game into his USC career, the freshman is already drawing comparisons to Trojan greats such as Jackson and Reggie Bush.
After announcing his arrival to the college football world with an electric debut performance, Branch will likely be a staple of the Trojans’ program for several years to come. And if Saturday evening was any indication, it will be a lot of fun to watch.