Bryant Grateful To Return To Football
“I ain’t going to lie,” Bryant said with a smile, then a laugh. “The first thing I thought of was that I needed to get in shape.”
Suddenly, Bryant, a running back from St. Louis, went from playing in a huddle offense that might allow the play clock to tick to 2-3 seconds, to a fast-paced attack that sometimes must wait for the referee to spot the football before it can step on the gas again.
Bryant also treasured the thought of increased opportunities to create mismatches on defenders and chances to make plays in the open field.
“You don’t necessarily have to break 20 tackles to get 20 yards,” Bryant said. “It’s just being able to be freer with everything.”
So much to excite a young running back, yet Bryant still had a major hurdle to clear before making this all become reality.
That one hurdle?
The possibility Bryant may never again play football.
When he had his knee surgically repaired Oct. 24, the doctor who performed the surgery flatly told Bryant he had a 50-50 chance of ever returning to the field.
“I’ve always been a guy that if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, and if it’s not, you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt,” Bryant said. “I was optimistic. It’s football. I’ve been banged up before. I’m always looking ahead for the next part of it, just looking at it all as a journey.”
That journey included some intense rehabilitation, and it’s led Bryant back on the field and into the thick of a preseason camp battle at running back, where Nebraska boasts a blend of veterans, newcomers and promising youth.
“I’m just blessed to be back out on the field,” Bryant said, “and that’s why I’m trying to make the best of my opportunities and enjoy the moment.”
For now, Bryant is listed as a junior, having played 12 in games as a true freshman and two as a sophomore, but Nebraska compliance officials are confident their medical hardship request, currently in process, will be approved. That means Bryant would be listed as a sophomore this season, the first of three seasons of playing eligibility remaining.
Bryant knew going into last season his knee wasn’t 100 percent after he initially injured it during preseason camp.
“I was already in survival mode throughout camp,” Bryant said, “so it was just like, ‘Let’s see how far he can ride this thing.’ ”
Turned out, not very.
Bryant looked impressive in the season opener, when he ran 31 times for 192 yards against Arkansas State. The following week at Oregon, he had 20 carries for 107 yards before going down on the first drive of the third quarter.
“I was screaming,” Bryant said. “It was pretty bad.”
Yet nobody was ready to declare the season over for Bryant, who underwent weeks of rehab before finally deciding in late October “it just wasn’t working,” he said.
Bryant doesn’t want to go into particular detail about his injury, or the surgery he had to correct it. He will confirm that his knee “is definitely solid” and he’s 100 percent clear and able to participate.
Bryant said Mark Mayer, head football athletic trainer, and Drew Hamblin, assistant athletic trainer, were key in his offseason rehabilitation. Specifically, Hamblin made the workouts competitive and provided an extra source of motivation by actually participating in drills with Bryant.
“He pushed me a lot,” Bryant said of Hamblin. “I know that rehab process is a monster. Sometimes you just want to get in there and do the basics and get out, just because there are some weird exercises. But he pushed me to keep on going. He’s definitely an A-1 trainer.”
Coaches and athletic trainers remain cautious with Bryant’s practice repetitions. Bryant describes it as emphasizing quality over quantity.
“We need to be smart,” Frost said last week at his pre-camp news conference. “I’m just going to have to be really attentive to what’s going on, listen to Mark Mayer, listen to Zach Duval, make sure they keep me up to speed on how he’s feeling, and as long as he’s ready to play when it’s his time, I’ll feel good about it.”
Bryant was among five Nebraska true freshmen to play in 2016 when he played in all 12 games before sitting out the Music City Bowl with an injury. For the season, he had 43 carries for 172 yards, along with eight catches for 56 yards. He scored two touchdowns.
Bryant also returned kicks, including a 59-yard kickoff return against Purdue, but isn’t certain if special teams remains in his future.
“That’s not closed until it’s closed,” Bryant said. “I can’t tell one way or another at this point.”
Even though he played in only six quarters last season, Bryant could feel marked improvement from the previous season.
“Just not having jitters anymore,” he said. “Freshman year, there’s a lot going on, especially at the running back position. Sophomore year, you take it to the next level, seeing blitzes, actually knowing what I’m looking for. I remember freshman year, I’d be out there scanning my head, because I know you’re supposed to scan, but I really didn’t know what I was looking for.”
At running back, Bryant has plenty of viable candidates with whom to share reps, including seniors Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon and sophomore Jaylin Bradley, along with junior college transfer Greg Bell, who participated in spring practices, and true freshmen Maurice Washington and Miles Jones, who arrived for preseason camp.
“We’ve got so many dogs back there, man,” Bryant said. “I’m excited. We’re unique. Everybody’s got his own little flare. I’m more of a scat and power back, Devine is straight power but if you sleep on him he’ll open up and take one 80. You’ve got young guys like Maurice (Washington) and new guys like Greg (Bell) who’s just got that flavor.
“Everybody’s got their own little piece. When we all come together as one, it’s just a special backfield.”
Bryant doesn’t view what’s unfolding in preseason camp as a race or battle for No. 1, especially with this type of offense, which isn’t likely to depend on just one running back, anyway.
“If you’re able to play, you’re going to play and you’re going to help out the team in different ways, especially the way Coach Frost can call some stuff up,” Bryant said.
“I don’t think any of us is looking at it like, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ If you are that guy, you’re going to split reps anyway. We’re out there trying to make each other better. We’re trying to be the best backfield in the country.”
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