Standing on the field at Allegiant Stadium after Bishop Gorman routed McQueen 56-7 to win the Class 5A state title in November, coach Brent Browner was asked if he’s ever seen anything like Zachariah Branch when he has the ball in his hands.
Browner’s answer was emphatic. “No,” he said.
Branch put on a show that day, taking a quick forward pitch and picking his way through traffic and to the end zone before doing the same on a punt return.
Unfortunately for Branch, neither of those plays counted and were both called back on penalties, but he had electrified the crowd. Branch eventually did get a touchdown that counted on a quick slant near the goal line.
“It’s definitely exciting to hear from certain coaches that I’m a unique player and they haven’t seen anything like it,” Branch said. “I’m blessed to have the opportunities and the ability to do what I can do out there.”
Branch and the Gaels open their season Friday when they host Corner Canyon (Utah) to begin their schedule of out-of-state non-league opponents.
They will also host defending national champion Mater Dei (California) on Aug. 26, Hamilton (Arizona) on Sept. 9 and Brookwood (Georgia) on Sept. 16. Their only nonleague road game will be against St. Louis (Hawaii) on Sept. 2.
The 5-foot-10-inch, 170-pound Branch is a five-star recruit ranked as the No. 1 wide receiver nationally and No. 6 overall in the ESPN 300.
He’s committed to Southern California, where he’ll reunite with his brother Zion, a safety who will be a true freshman this year.
“My brother and I have a bond that’s unbreakable, so I can’t wait to get there and reconnect,” Branch said. “Coach (Lincoln) Riley is what made me and my brother choose USC. He’s a great person and a great coach.”
Branch caught 48 passes for 1,094 yards, a 22.8 average and 14 touchdowns. He also showed his speed and elusiveness as a punt returner with a weaving score against Lone Peak (Utah) and a 97-yard return in the 5A state semifinals against Liberty.
While Browner admits some of the plays Branch makes leaves him saying “whoa,” it’s the way Branch has matured as a leader that impresses him as much, if not more.
“People see all the flash, but they don’t understand how much work he puts in,” Browner said. “It didn’t just happen for him. People don’t see during the week when he runs extra conditioning, catches extra balls or when he mentors the young receivers.”
Gorman is certainly pumped for the opportunity to host Mater Dei, but it might be the Hamilton game that stands out even more.
After all, it was Hamilton that scored 18 points in the final 1:05 as Gorman collapsed for a 25-24 loss, its only setback last season. Browner, in a few words, made it clear his Gaels will be ready for that rematch and are excited for the opportunity to face Hamilton again.
“One-hundred percent,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Branch said his goals for his senior season are to eclipse his statistics from last season, but to do so in helping the Gaels reach their goals.
“We’re really focused on trying to win the national championship,” Branch said. “I feel like this is one of the most talented teams we’ve had. You have to win state first. But if we can do that and take care of business, we’ll have a shot.”