Zion Branch impresses USC coach Lincoln Riley in his comeback

He cheered on his teammates last year. Now, Zion Branch’s teammates are eager to return the favor.

“Yeah, Z!” safety Calen Bullock and rush end Romello Height hollered after a recent USC practice as Branch attracted a small group of reporters.

Branch could garner many more cheers this fall as the 6-foot-2 safety is preparing for his long-awaited USC debut. After he suffered a season-ending knee injury during fall camp last season, Branch is fully healthy and vying for playing time in a USC secondary that hopes to bounce back from last year’s disappointment.

The redshirt freshman toiled in the training room to be physically ready for spring practices and pored over hours of film to be mentally sharper than ever. It was the longest time Branch had ever spent away from football.

With splashy plays like a pick-six during USC’s first fall scrimmage, Branch is proving to be worth the wait.

“I feel like really I got a chance to hone in on my skills technically,” said Branch, the older brother of USC’s highly touted freshman receiver Zachariah Branch. “[I] got to hone in on my strength in the weight room and definitely in the film room, having a whole year just learning mentally and getting to watch these great safeties and great DBs we have around us.”

With a strong work ethic and focused personality off the field, Branch “checks every box,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. But the former four-star recruit was limited to noncontact practice during the spring as he returned from the injury, so coaches still had questions.

Branch answered them emphatically by starring in the team’s first scrimmage, when he forced a fumble and returned the interception for a touchdown. Head coach Lincoln Riley singled him out as the standout performer during the session.

“He has made as much progress in 14 days as anybody that I’ve ever been around,” Grinch said Monday, less than two weeks before USC’s season opener against San Jose State. “It’s been real exciting to see. Credit completely goes to him and a guy that we’re excited about moving forward, so I think he’ll have a role with us.”

How large of a role is still up for discussion. Branch is in the mix at safety among returners Jaylin Smith, Bryson Shaw and Max Williams, who are all vying for starting positions alongside Bullock, an all-conference junior.

The competition is “fierce,” Smith acknowledged, but nothing is stronger than the bonds between teammates.

“I wouldn’t consider it a competition; I would consider it more of a brotherhood,” said Smith, a junior who started nine games last season with 37 tackles. “We’re out here bringing energy, bringing juice, but we know what we have at stake.”

For Branch, it’s an opportunity to realize a dream. He always envisioned himself attending USC while growing up in Las Vegas, where he starred at powerhouse Bishop Gorman. Even after the injury delayed his debut, Branch patrolled the sidelines during some home games dressed in full pads.

Finally getting to put those pads to use on the field would be a “dream come true,” Branch said.

“Getting to come out there and run out of that tunnel for real now and step with my teammates,” Branch said, “it’s going to be a one-of-a-kind.”