Notre Dame's Greg Bryant trampling over frustration

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

In the darkest moments of what then felt like a lost season, Greg Bryant hopped on the Internet to get a taste of how the outside world perceived his internal battle to keep his ambition from unraveling.

Months later, when the Notre Dame sophomore-to-be made a quick trip home to South Florida for spring break, the caustic comments sprang to life from people who probably should have known better.

“They were like, ‘Oh man, what happened? You’re not the same player you were before,’ ” the 5-foot-10, 204-pounder from Delray Beach related. “Honestly, people are asleep on me right now.”

In reality, he’s been the eye-opening player of spring practice for a Notre Dame football team that blips past the halfway point of its 15 spring practices Saturday morning and concludes with the annual Blue-Gold Game on April 12.

Bryant hasn’t just transcended the seemingly endless cyber-stream of transfer rumors, a meniscus tear in his right knee, and the seamy side of being tagged with a five-star recruiting label. He has used it to fuel an ascent that’s put him squarely in the running back picture as well as ND’s return game as the potential No. 1 punt returner.

“When I’m on the field, it’s like all the aggression I had last year not playing and stuff, and just when I get the ball now and I’m in the hole, it’s like I don’t want to go back to not playing anymore,” Bryant said. “So that power, I guess, it shows when I’m practicing now. ... I’m just so hungry right now, it’s crazy.”

For the record, Bryant said he never once seriously considered transferring, despite the frustration of an academic load, a new climate and unexpected competition that were for weeks downright overbearing.

“When I first got here, it was horrible,” he said.

Some of that was his own doing, he admits. His ego barely fit inside his helmet.

“When I first got here, basically Notre Dame humbled me,” he said. “Cierre (Wood) and Theo (Riddick), both of them left, so I thought I was going to come in and just jump right into the mix right away. But it didn’t happen like that.”

Bryant was running back No. 5 on a six-man depth chart. His first collegiate carries, a 10-yarder and a two-yarder, came in ND’s 2013 season-opening quashing of Temple. Two weeks later, in a 31-24 escape at Purdue, Bryant received his third and final carry of the season. It went for two yards.

It was in the days that followed when he felt pain in his right knee.

“I didn’t feel as fast as I did during camp or I didn’t feel as powerful, and I knew something was wrong,” Bryant said. “And I didn’t get the playbook down all the way, either.”

Bryant just eked on the right side of the criteria to be able to apply for a medical redshirt year, so ND head coach Brian Kelly decided not to wait and see if the pain would eventually go away by itself. Bryant ended up undergoing surgery after initially having platelet-rich plasma treatments.

It still didn’t take away the pain in his heart. His father, Greg Bryant Sr., a former linebacker/defensive end at Northern Illinois, helped set the template for that. Fellow Floridian and freshman running back Tarean Folston helped.

Humility and patience were central to the prescription. But the younger Bryant took it a step further once he was fully healthy in December. He did speed work on his own and with running back-turned-receiver Amir Carlisle, whose father leads Purdue athletics’ strength and conditioning program.

Bryant didn’t want to be back to who he was at American Heritage High School, where his decorated résumé included 243 yards on 39 carries in a Class 2-A state championship game victory over Madison County his junior year. He wanted to be better than that guy ever was.

By all accounts, he is indeed faster, and noticeably more powerful and, by his own admission, more coachable.

“You definitely notice him in practice,” nose guard Jarron Jones offered.

That includes in the passing game, too, another offseason emphasis. In the running game, Bryant zips through the line like his hair is on fire, like he is attacking the defense, like he was running over everyone who questioned his ability, his heart and his loyalty to Notre Dame.

“It was a blessing I got hurt,” he said. “It just made me more humble and more hungry to come back this year and show people what I got and show people that I’m just not a bust, how I see on the Internet. Like I’m not nobody.”

Now he’s part of a rotation with Folston and last year’s leading rusher, senior Cam McDaniel, that looks dynamic at this stage of the spring and has the potential to coax the Irish into the top 35 rushing offenses nationally for the first time in Kelly’s soon-to-be five seasons.

“He was so supercharged out there, we kind of had to settled him down a little bit,” Kelly said after a recent practice, “but he’ll be an outstanding player for us.

“I think he’s really got the whole college experience and handling the academics and being away from home and the weather – I think he’s acclimated quite well to all of those things. So now I think he feels like it’s smooth sailing for him. He can just focus on football.”

McKinney couldn’t wait

Notre Dame on Thursday landed its fourth commitment for the 2015 recruiting class when Dallas defensive back Prentice McKinney pledged to the program.

McKinney, a junior at South Oak Cliff High, confirmed the commitment to the Tribune late Thursday night.

"I've been wanting to do it," McKinney said. "I was just talking it over with my parents. They agreed with me, so I decided to go ahead and do it."

The 6-foot-2, 182-pound McKinney was recruited by ND assistant Kerry Cooks. He called Cooks on Thursday night to make the commitment and planned to speak with head coach Brian Kelly on Friday.

McKinney has yet to visit Notre Dame but plans to do so for the Blue-Gold Game on April 12.

"I wanted to make the commitment, because that's where I really want to go," McKinney said. "In a couple years I'll be closing in on a degree from Notre Dame."

McKinney said the Irish beat out Michigan and Oklahoma, who were both recruiting him hard after extending offers. On Wednesday, he received an offer from Texas A&M.

"He's very athletic," said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, who rates McKinney as a four-star prospect. "One of the better players in the (Dallas area)."

Lemming projects McKinney as a cornerback or free safety.

McKinney joins quarterback Blake Barnett, and offensive linemen Jerry Tillery and Tristen Hoge in the 2015 class.

Staff writer Tyler James contributed to this report.

EHansen@SBTinfo.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant (1) runs during the opening day of spring football practice on Monday, Mar. 3, 2014, at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)