By Dan Mihalik
ORLANDO – The nation’s premier high school senior football stars shined at the 2023 Under Armour Next All-America Game, highlighted by an MVP performance from Team Phantom’s Zachariah Branch, whose punt return touchdown propelled Team Phantom to a 14-7 victory over Team Speed on Tuesday night.
After a scoreless first quarter, Texas running back commit CJ Baxter got Team Phantom on the board on the first play of the second with a 13-yard touchdown run to give his squad a 7-0 advantage. Then later in the quarter, Branch, a USC commit, gave Team Phantom a 14-0 advantage with a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown, tying the record set by Amari Cooper’s in 2012.
On the ensuing possession, Team Speed cut into the lead with an eight-play drive that ended with Oklahoma quarterback commit Jackson Arnold connecting with Utah signee Michael Matthews for a 23-yard touchdown connection, making the score 14-7 at halftime and the decisive score.
Defensively, both teams had standout performers. For Team Speed, Oklahoma signee PJ Adebawore finished the game with a pair of tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry, Michael and Andrew Harris combined for three tackles for loss, while Florida commit Kelby Collins, who earned team MVP honors, finished with three tackles, a sack and a pass breakup.
For Team Phantom, Clemson commit Peter Woods finished the game with three tackles, two for loss, and a pass breakup, Michigan State pledge Jordan Hall led the team with five tackles, including one for loss, and South Carolina signee Desmond Umeozulu recorded a pair of tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
Also during the game, four Under Armour Next All-Americans announced their college commitments. A pair of players announced their commitments to Nebraska - cornerback Ethan Nation and defensive end Cameron Lenhardt, running back Durrell Robinson pledged to Charlotte and defensive end Ashton Porter made his commitment to Oregon.
Phantom: 11:49, 2Q: CJ Baxter 13 yard rush (PAT Kick by Peyton Woodring), 7-0
Phantom: 3:16, 2Q: Zachariah Branch 93 yard punt return (PAT Kick by Woodring), 14-0
Speed: 1:28, 2Q: Michael Matthews 23 yard reception from Jackson Arnold (PAT Kick by Blake Craig), 14-7
Notable Top 10 Performances
- Zachariah Branch’s (USC) 93 yard punt return is tied for the longest scoring play in Game history (Brian Poole 93 yard interception return and Amari Cooper’s 93 yard punt return in 2012), tied for the longest punt return in Game history (Cooper in 2012).
- Branch’s 152 all-purpose yards is fourth-most in Game history.
- Branch’s seven receptions are tied for second-most in Game history.
- Branch’s 122 punt return yards are the most in Game history.
- Jackson Arnold (Oklahoma) finished 12-of-23 passing. His 12 completions and 23 attempts each rank third in their respective categories in Game history.
- JJ Kohl (Iowa State) finished 11-of-18 passing. His 11 completions are tied for fourth and his 18 attempts are tied for sixth in Game history.