Bryant expected to provide boost

ND Insider

Off-kilter might be a kind way to explain the personality it takes to be a punt returner in college football.

A more appropriate description is downright crazy, or fearless.

Ten potential assassins running at full-speed as the target completely disregards the mayhem while focusing on the football booted high and deep.

Catch the ball, secure it, then try to avoid 10 guys whose sole mission is to level the target.

Just another day at the office for Greg Bryant.

“(The punt returner) has to have something about him,” said Scott Booker, the coordinator of Notre Dame’s special teams. “We want to find those guys. The only way we can really do it is to have live bullets coming at them, have a live punter kicking.

“In the spring, we weren’t able to do that very much. You have to find a guy who has a lot of confidence in himself and his ability.”

“You’ve gotta be fearless,” said Bryant. “Football is football. It’s what we’ve been doing since we were little. It’s like, ‘One man won’t bring me down.’ ”

Bryant, a redshirt freshman destined to be a primary contributor at running back this season, is perfectly suited for that special mission. At 5-foot-10 and 204 pounds, Bryant is a chiseled specimen who is an impressive figure on the field.

Punt returns have been an issue at Notre Dame for the first round years of the coach Brian Kelly Era at ND. While the Irish were on their 12-0 run to the BCS Championship Game, they were among the worst in punt returns in the country. They ran back 21 punts for just 46 yards.

Last season, senior receiver TJ Jones recognized the need and accepted the challenge. He was instrumental in Notre Dame rising to 80th (out of 123) in the country (7.07 yards per return). That represents the high-water mark of Kelly’s tenure.

Irish coaches are counting on Bryant being an upgrade from that. While a senior at American Heritage School in Delray Beach, Fla., Bryant shared punt return duties with Marcus Davis (now playing at Auburn). According to American Heritage coach Stacy Sizemore, the two averaged about 20 yards per return. Bryant ran back a pair for touchdowns.

“Greg’s a dynamic athlete with the ball in his hands,” Sizemore said. “As a punt returner, there’s a lot of open field where he can make a lot happen. He’s explosive. He can make a lot of people miss.

“If Greg could get into an open space, he was dangerous. That’s when you saw his athleticism take hold.”

“He has shown the capacity (to do a great job),” Irish running backs coach Tony Alford said of Bryant’s double-duty. “He does a nice job of fielding punts. He’s definitely one of the guys in the mix.”

It was hard for Irish coaches to get in a lot of special teams work in the spring because the weather was so cold and wet. Most practices were held indoors, which isn’t conducive to working with the return game. The significant evaluations will be conducted in preseason camp, but Bryant seems like a logical choice.

“You’ve gotta have raw talent to make things happen (on a punt return),” Bryant said. “I know I can do that.

“You’ve gotta catch the ball. In college, they kick it higher (than high school). (Irish punter) Kyle Brindza, he woke me up when I first got here. He kicked the ball a lot higher than the average high school punter would kick it.

“It’s not that different once you catch the ball. All you’re doing is running through a hole.”

“Nine out of 10 times, the punt returner doesn’t see what’s coming downfield at him,” Sizemore said. “You need a lot of courage to do that job.

“Greg wanted to do whatever he could to help the team be successful. Here’s the starting tailback returning punts. That’s pretty rare, but it shows the kind of character Greg has.”

Booker said Bryant has a lot going for him heading into the season.

“First, he wants to (return punts),” Booker said. “He’s got that energy that he knows he can and he wants to do it. That’s what I love. There are other guys who are in the mix as well. Greg has the confidence to do it and excel with it.”

Though there were no punt returns in the Blue-Gold Game in April, Irish fans got a taste of what Bryant could do when he broke a long run from scrimmage.

“The long run he made in the spring game (51 yards), that’s Greg Bryant,” said Sizemore. “He’s such an exciting person with the ball in his hands.”

Sizemore sees this as Bryant’s opportunity to turn last season’s inactivity into a positive. The coach watched from afar as Bryant navigated the choppy waters of sitting out most of the season after suffering a knee injury earlier enough in 2013 to recoup that year of eligibility as a medical redshirt.

“Greg was always a huge competitor,” Sizemore said. “The situation he faced last year was more of a motivation for him than anything. He knew that sooner or later the opportunity was going to present itself.

“He’s one who thrives on making the situation better. You’ve got two choices: Get better, or fall by the wayside. He’s got the ‘I’ll show you’ mentality.”

Courage with a chip on the shoulder could be a good combination for the Notre Dame special teams.

Nothing crazy about that.

Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant (1) tries to break away from teammates Andrew Trumbetti, left, and Jaylon Smith, right, during the Blue-Gold Spring Game on Saturday, April 12, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER