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    USC-Notre Dame notebook: Zachariah Branch makes an energetic return
    • October 15, 2023

    SOUTH BEND, INDIANA — He bounded out of the tunnel with helmet and full pads and neon-green mouthguard, gait something between a skip and a frolic, putting his head down and bobbing his arms to the pregame thumps of A$AP Rocky’s “Praise The Lord” across Notre Dame Stadium loudspeakers.

    And pockets of USC fans, slowly trickling in from outnumbered tailgates across a waterlogged South Bend campus Saturday night, let out a faint smattering of cheers. Because the implication, from the kid’s ever-electric demeanor, was clear.

    Yeah, Zachariah Branch was back. 

    For two weeks, ever since he surprisingly didn’t dress for USC-Colorado, Branch’s status had been clouded. Seen fielding punt returns at practice across the last couple weeks, but out again against Arizona, one of the Trojans’ most dynamic weapons relegated to the sidelines. Head coach Lincoln Riley didn’t even confirm his absence was due to an injury — using incredibly unspecific language like “we don’t think it’s long-term” — until Thursday.

    “He’s going to continue to need to make some jumps here to be ready for us,” Riley said Thursday.

    Those jumps were made, literally and figuratively, Branch leaping into the air in early warmups to snag a one-handed grab, youthful excitement buzzing from a freshman who’d captured the nation with four touchdowns in his first four collegiate games.

    “We’ve got a long stretch of football ahead of us,” Riley said Tuesday, “so we’re trying to, obviously — excited to get him back when the time is, but we’ve got to be smart when that time is.”

    Even with Branch’s return, USC played it conservative with his usage in the first quarter on Saturday, the receiver doing band-work on his right leg with strength coach Bennie Wylie in warm-ups. He started the game at kick returner but didn’t play a major role on offense until USC’s third drive late in the first quarter.

    In the second, though, he seemingly eradicated all doubt as to his health — taking a handoff on a 2nd-and-20 and springing up the middle, cutting back in succession for a 17-yard gain.

    Raesjon Davis earns a start

    When healthy, USC’s linebacker corps has remained relatively steady: transfer Mason Cobb starting alongside Tackett Curtis. It’s a formation, though, that’s scratched a few heads at times, as both the eye test and advanced metrics have indicated both the returning Eric Gentry and Raesjon Davis have been productive at the ILB spot in limited time.

    And Davis, after a no-show against Arizona, was out filling a spot next to Curtis in the first half Saturday — who played admirably himself, executing a couple of nice tackles after struggling slightly with physicality over the past couple weeks. Cobb cycled in at various points throughout the first half to contribute to an overall strong USC defensive effort, but the odd man out was Gentry, who didn’t make any first-half noise after earning 31 snaps against Arizona last week.

    Jacobe Covington out

    After a game-changing pick against Arizona the previous week, cornerback Jacobe Covington was in street clothes against Notre Dame. Domani Jackson returned after an absence to bolster USC’s secondary.

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    ​ Orange County Register