LOS ANGELES — For about one half of football, the 2023 version of USC looked like a lot like the 2022 version.
In its season opener against San Jose State on Saturday night, the No. 6-ranked Trojans scored plenty of points but also struggled at times to keep their opponents from doing the same.
Quarterback Caleb Williams began his repeat Heisman campaign by picking up where he left off, throwing for 278 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-28 win. But the new-look defense was once again shaky, showing flashes of the team’s added talent but struggling to contain a mobile quarterback.
“No matter what the score was, if this was a three-point game, if it was a 28-point game, if it was a 50-point game, there’s gonna be that climb to the next step,” head coach Lincoln Riley said postgame. “And that’s where our focus is gonna stay. A lot of work to do, and we’re the right people to get it done.”
Last season, Williams often rendered inconsistent defensive performances moot by himself. He got some help Saturday, when another star emerged in the form of true freshman receiver Zachariah Branch. The No. 7 recruit in the 2023 ESPN 300, Branch took over the third quarter and zoomed his way to 232 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns on just nine touches, including a dazzling 96-yard kickoff return for a score that helped cement the result.
Branch, who arrived on campus in the spring, had attracted rave reviews from his teammates throughout fall camp, but it was unclear how much playing time or impact he would have. After just one game, Branch can lay claim to one of the most electric debuts in USC football history and a role that should continue to grow.
“He made an impact on offense, he made an impact on special teams. He earned it,” said Riley, who notably doesn’t allow freshmen to speak to media. Branch sat alongside him in the press conference. “He did a good job of not trying to do too much, which guys in their first game will sometimes do.”
The 19-year-old from Bishop Gorman High School began his career by catching a pass from Williams in the third quarter and bursting his way into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.
Later in the quarter, Branch unleashed his showstopper. After catching a kickoff near USC’s end zone, Branch began jogging and surveying the field in front of him as if he was mapping out his route. Then, he took off, not merely dodging defenders with his moves, but flying past them as if playing at an entirely different speed. His final move — a cutback near the 20-yard line that gave him an open lane toward the end zone — made the entire stadium gasp.
It also forced Branch to answer postgame questions about his speed.
“My fastest 40 time? I ran 4.38 at the UA camp,” Branch said, recalling the numbers quickly. “My 100 time, I ran 10.3 my sophomore year in high school.”
Branch’s kickoff return for a touchdown was the first for a USC true freshman since Adoree’ Jackson in the 2014 Holiday Bowl — fitting, given that there are plenty of similarities between the two players. Both are listed as wide receivers but are borderline position-less, utilizing incredible speed and agility to outmatch defenses, be it by catching the ball, running it, or taking off on kickoffs and punts.
On Saturday, by the time Branch touched the ball again on a punt return a few series later, all eyes were on him in anticipation of what he might do next. In the span of a few plays, Branch had become one of the most exciting players on the field.
“You don’t have to put it into words once you’re saying it every day, you know?” fellow receiver Tahj Washington said of Branch’s talent.
Branch is one of several players that make up the Trojans’ deep receiver room. In total, 12 players caught passes from either Williams or backup Miller Moss on Saturday. But despite the talent at that position — and an increase in talent at nearly every position heading into this year — Williams said there was some frustration in the opener with the lack of consistency throughout the team.
“In the first half I just felt like we weren’t hitting on certain calibers and things like that, that we’re gonna hit on here soon,” Williams said. “We got a long way to go and a lot to get better at.”