USC safety Zion Branch eager to contribute after knee injury
After missing last season, the redshirt frosh has studied the defense and his teammates to be ready to go
Adam Grosbard (OC Register) — LOS ANGELES — Injured players aren’t hard to spot on the sidelines of a football game. Maybe they wear their jerseys, but they usually opt for sweatpants or shorts, maybe a baseball cap.
But when USC played at the Coliseum last year, freshman Zion Branch, a few months removed from knee surgery, cut no corners. Branch could be seen in shoulder pads, game shorts, even his helmet in hand as if he were ready to play and not ruled out for the season.
“I wanted to be out there with my boys every Saturday,” Branch said, “and it hurt me a lot that I couldn’t.”
But as spring camp ramps up, Branch is back on the field with his teammates, and hoping to make a contribution as a redshirt freshman.
Branch arrived at USC as a four-star top-100 prospect out of Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas and is the type of talent USC needs to raise its ceiling defensively.
He has the size, speed, and athleticism the Trojans have lacked on defense in recent seasons and was part of a wave of young defensive backs expected to push for playing time in the first year of the Lincoln Riley era. And Riley kept hearing encouraging feedback about Branch from summer player-run practices.
“You always can tell some of the young guys that are going to have a chance to contribute early because the older guys start talking about them,” Riley said. “And he had generated (a buzz) among some of our older players.”
But during one of these practices, what Branch described as “a freak accident” occurred. While he did not go into details, Branch said he was making the type of football move he’s made a million times over the course of his life. But this time he went down, and surgery was required.
The day after the operation, Branch started rehab. He tried to use the downtime to learn the USC defense, studying film and his teammates to at least get mental reps while he was sidelined.
But when game day rolled around, Branch did not want to feel left out, so he put on all his pads and dressed out instead.
“Like getting a Christmas present and knowing you can’t use it for a whole year,” Riley said. “He fills out the uniform pretty well.”
Now cleared for spring practices, Branch has been able to do almost everything with the team except for full contact. His brother, Zachariah, is a freshman receiver, which adds a wrinkle to Branch’s camp. And he’s working across the three safety spots for USC, eager to see the field wherever he can help the team.
Now 6-2, 210, Branch is just grateful for the opportunity to practice after being out for so many months. “Y’all can only imagine,” Branch said. “Now just being back on the field, it’s like I’m feeling really good right now. Like I said, I’m feeling really blessed and fortunate to be out here on the field, feeling healthy.”
Only adding to Branch’s sense of fortune is where he is.
It was his dream school then after formative visits to the Coliseum, watching players like Iman Marshall. Now he’s waiting to make his own debut, pads on for a purpose this fall. “Biggie, man, he was one of those dawgs that I really looked up to. Wearing that number too (8) it feels like a dream come true.”
“My dad, he brought me and my brother to USC games. This was the first college team I really started watching. When I started to go to USC games, it was like, ‘Man, I want to go to USC, I want to be a part of that program,’” Branch said. “Being here now, it feels surreal.”
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