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How Bishop Gorman’s Zachariah Branch became nation’s top receiver

Updated October 29, 2022 - 10:17 pm

Zachariah Branch announced in December that he’d play football for Southern California, but his bedroom is still adorned with recruitment letters from colleges across the country.

Some are addressed to him. Some to his brother, Zion. They frame the only other decorative items pinned to the walls they used to share.

A poster of a lion and a poster of a cheetah.

“(They’re) the tattoos that we might end up getting,” the Bishop Gorman senior says, his diamond earrings twinkling like his signature smile.

“He said he wanted a lion to represent the courage and the strength that he has,” he said of his older brother.

“And the cheetah … I mean, I’m pretty fast.”

Indeed he is — and the No. 1 wide receiver recruit in the graduating class of 2023, a befitting designation for the 5-foot-10-inch, 170-pounder who runs the 100-meter dash in 10.33 seconds and covers 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. His brother is a freshman safety for USC whom he’s eager to join in Los Angeles.

But Branch is due to play a couple more games for Gorman, which rolled to a 72-0 victory Thursday over Faith Lutheran in the first round of the Class 5A Southern Region playoffs. Branch caught a 49-yard touchdown pass in that game, demonstrating the refined route running and elusiveness that complement the speed and necessitate the double and triple teams to which he’s grown accustomed.

“You just look and you’re like ‘What is going on?’” Gaels coach Brent Browner said. “It’s like he does some stuff that you’re not supposed to be able to do. … To his credit, he’s just doing his best. He’s not thinking about doing something amazing.”

Speed runs in family

That Branch runs fast shouldn’t surprise considering his great-uncle, Cliff, a former Raiders wide receiver, was one of the fastest players in NFL history. Enshrined in August into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he ran 100 meters in 10 seconds flat — a mark his great-nephew believes he’ll best at USC, where he plans to sprint for its track and field team.

Branch clocked his personal record of 10.33 seconds toward the end of his sophomore year and predicted he’ll run 10.1 or 10.0 this spring.

He oozes confidence, derived in part from a decade of training under his father, Shéva, a speed, strength and agility coach who formerly played fullback for San Jose State. It was there he met Renee, the matriarch of the household they share near Gorman’s campus, with whom he relocated from the Bay Area to the Las Vegas Valley when their sons were toddlers.

The Branch brothers participated in soccer, basketball, track and field and gymnastics during childhoods that weren’t long for idle time.

Piano and chess remain recreational hobbies for Zachariah Branch, who boasts nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram and maintains an avid interest in theater and acting.

“Zachariah likes the limelight,” his mother said with a laugh. “He loves the attention.”

And it’s on the gridiron where he garners the most.

Branch began by playing flag football alongside Zion on a team coached by their father, graduating to tackle by the age of 8 and beginning track a year or two later. He won his first 100-meter dash, promptly realizing that his speed was best suited to “make people miss” on the football field.

With Zion 17 months his senior, Zachariah always had a companion at their father’s workouts and an adversary to sharpen his competitive drive. Their development through the local youth football circuits coincided with Gorman’s ascension into the nation’s premier prep football program.

The two would attend Gorman football camps and home and away games — idolizing previous Gaels greats such as Brevin Jordan, Tate Martell, Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Jalen Nailor.

“I’m seeing how the kids looking at me now, that’s how I looked at (them) back then. Like I could see myself being in their shoes,” Branch said. “They were always cool with me and my brother. They always embraced us, so it made it perfect for us to come to Gorman.”

To prepare for high school, Branch and his brother elected to home-school in junior high — creating additional time to train as they began to blossom. They’d arrive at a local EoS Fitness by 6 a.m. and work out for a couple hours before returning home to participate in their online curriculum.

Evenings were filled with additional workouts and football or track practice depending on the season.

Zion debuted on Gorman’s varsity team as a freshman while Zachariah was in eighth grade, concluding his youth career with a team based in Southern California’s Inland Empire that played a national schedule. Once or twice every week, Branch would ride with one of his parents or take a bus four hours to practice or play before returning that night to Las Vegas and arriving between 1 or 2 a.m.

By the end of his eighth-grade year, Branch was attending Gorman track practices and mingling with his future teammates while his father coached Gaels sprinters.

“He was keeping up with us. … and he was just a freak of an athlete,” said former Gorman wide receiver Rome Odunze, now a third-year sophomore at Washington and one of the best receivers in the country. “To see his talent and how dedicated he was to the game at such a young age was just telling signs of how great he was going to be and what he was going to accomplish.”

USC all along

With his brother entrenched in Gorman’s secondary, Branch debuted in seven-on-seven for the Gaels during the summer preceding his freshman year of 2019 — earning his first scholarship offer alongside Zion from former Gorman coach Tony Sanchez, then of UNLV.

Offers from Georgia and Auburn would follow before Branch played a varsity game, but he had another college in mind.

His family attended USC’s season opener in 2015, exposing the brothers to the culture and tradition surrounding one of the most prestigious programs in college football.

“At a young age, we both said we wanted to go to SC,” said Zion, one of the premier safety recruits in the class of 2022. “When we both got that offer, it was like a dream come true.”

Zion received his offer in December of 2019 and Zachariah’s followed six months later after a freshman season in which he finished second on the team to Odunze in all major receiving categories. The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season, but the two continued their training independently of the Gaels at either All American Park or Game Changers Sports, where Shéva trains other top local athletes.

Together they logged long hours, refining their technique and addressing critiques that college coaches or recruiting writers would submit in their evaluations. They dominated the ensuing seven-on-seven circuit and returned in 2021 to lead Gorman to the Class 5A state championship — with Zion as the state’s top senior recruit and Zachariah posting 1,094 receiving yards to go with 14 touchdowns.

Still, Branch was dissatisfied without the No. 1 positional ranking he now so proudly sports, requiring he dominate the regional seven-on-seven circuit again. His five-star status wasn’t in question, but Branch sought the top spot after missing the overall top 100 following his freshman season.

“I kept that as motivation,” he said. “After the seven-on-seven season, everybody was texting me when they did the new rankings. That’s what I wanted.”

With that goal in hand, Branch is shifting his focus to a new set of goals that are peppered on a piece of paper taped to his family’s bathroom mirror. Zion actually wrote them, but they’re applicable to his younger brother as well: start all three years at USC, win a national championship, become a first-round NFL draft pick and earn enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Branch is already learning USC’s playbook and watching game tape every Sunday, preparing to replace Trojans star wideout Jordan Addison in coach Lincoln Riley’s explosive offense — and rejoin Zion.

The lion is in Los Angeles, and the cheetah is on his way.

“It’s just kind of like ‘Wow. It’s really happening,’ and so that’s been pretty surreal,” their father said. “It’s a blessing to see it. And for us knowing they’re going to stay together, that’s exciting. Because we didn’t know. They had options to go to different schools. … To see it come together, it’s just like ‘Wow.’”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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