Zachariah Branch saw this coming, long before the coach’s plan had started to come together at USC.
He knew it by last Christmas Eve, when the five-star wideout first announced his commitment to USC, just a month after Lincoln Riley was hired and a full year ahead of Wednesday’s early signing day, when Branch and 18 others officially signed as part of USC’s 2023 recruiting class.
At the time, it was a leap of faith for the nation’s top receiver prospect in some respects, hopping on a bandwagon that was just being rebuilt. But even before the 11-2 debut and the Heisman trophy win and the hope of a national title had returned, Branch was already convinced by the coach and what he planned to build at USC. He never wavered in the year that followed.
“I trusted the process with him,” Branch said. “It was just perfect timing. To see it all come full circle, to execute it the way he said he would, it’s a blessing.”
Another phase of that grand plan became official Wednesday, as USC signed a recruiting class that ranks No. 15 nationally , according to 247Sports.com, headlined by a trio of five-stars in Branch, Los Alamitos quarterback Malachi Nelson and Los Alamitos receiver Makai Lemon, who cast their lot with the coach long before it became clear how quickly USC could rise from the ashes.
As a result, it was a decidedly different start to the early signing period than last December, when Riley and his staff spent their first month at USC in a dead sprint down the recruiting trail, desperate to piece together whatever class they could. USC wound up signing seven high school players last December, opting to do most of its work in the transfer portal, while Riley asked for patience.
The strategy this time included fewer deep dives into the portal — “a little bit more traditional in the way we want to build this program going forward,” Riley explained — and more of a long-game approach.
But keeping the same patience he preached last December was pertinent through his first full recruiting cycle as USC’s coach, as the Trojans held tight not only to its trio of five-stars, but a host of other recruits in a class that was almost entirely built before USC’s breakout season began. Just one signee on Wednesday — three-star defensive end Elijah Hughes — committed to the Trojans within the past two months.
“It wasn’t certainly as much of a mad rush as it was at this time last year,” Riley said. “And that’s what you hope. You’re at one of the premier universities, college football programs, in the country. You feel like it should be like this.”
USC’s 2023 class could certainly check off many of the boxes expected of the powerhouse program Riley promised to build. It had an heir apparent at quarterback in Nelson, the No. 2 passer prospect in the nation — and No. 3 overall — according to 247Sports.com. It boasted a pair of dynamic playmakers on the perimeter in Branch (No. 5) and Lemon (No. 34), both of whom could make an impact next season. It contained five offensive linemen and six along the defensive front, including a four-star linebacker in Tackett Curtis who Riley called “the best inside linebacker in the country.”
What it couldn’t manage was any sort of last-second, splash signing, as five-star Bellflower St. John Bosco defensive end Matayo Uiagalelei spurned USC for Oregon, dealing the Trojans their only recruiting defeat of significance of the early signing period.
It was the Ducks’ third high-profile recruiting win of the day, moving them past USC in the national recruiting rankings. Though, Riley didn’t seem to mind much by midday Wednesday. He similarly shrugged off losing prospects to the promise of NIL paydays.
“The goal is not to win signing day, but to win championships by not only bringing in great players, but people you know are going to be successful in your given environment,” Riley said. “We know that we’ve done that with this class.”
Whether Riley was able to bring in enough talent on defense to help lift a unit that struggled mightily last season remains to be seen. After missing out on Uiagalelei, USC managed to sign just one top-100 defender in Texas edge rusher Braylan Shelby.
USC has, however, already snagged four defenders out of the transfer portal, including an All-Big 12 linebacker in Oklahoma State’s Mason Cobb and an all-Pac-12 defensive lineman in Arizona’s Kyon Barrs.
“We took some huge steps,” Riley said of USC’s defensive additions. “There were several positions defensively where we landed on and were able to get our very early, high-end targets. Those were really important.”
There would be no such questions about the talent the Trojans amassed on offense in this cycle. And that’s before five-star Arizona tight end Duce Robinson makes his decision sometime between now and February.
Nelson is the highest-rated quarterback recruit to sign with USC since Matt Barkley in 2009, according to 247 Sports.
“As far as what we’re looking for at the quarterback position,” Riley said, “he’s a guy who we think has an extremely bright future as a player, as a leader and as a winner. That’s what you have to have at that position.”
In Branch, Riley said, USC is adding “a special talent.”
“You go a lot of years and not come across a guy that has that elite explosiveness with just very, very good football skills,” Riley said. “He’s one of the very few that has both. I think when you combine him with Makai Lemon, who we think is very, very special as well, that tandem right there is as good as any you’ll find in the country.”
That’s precisely how Branch envisioned this playing out a year ago, when he first committed to USC. Now he has plans to make an immediate impact as a freshman, as he and the rest of his class set out on the next phase of USC’s rebuild.
“I definitely have seen it turn around,” Branch said, “and now we’re getting USC back to where we’re the best team in the country.”