Greg Bryant a quick study for Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Through the unfiltered, unabridged and unapologetic bursts of confidence, Greg Bryant never did take off his backpack Wednesday night during his media blast.

It’s a conscious reminder to the Notre Dame sophomore running back of not only how much homework he has this week, but of the total ND experience, which he embraces and begrudges all at the same time.

“I’ve adapted to living the lifestyle of a Notre Dame student-athlete,” he said Wednesday after practice, with the ninth-ranked Irish (3-0) heading into an open date Saturday before a Sept. 27 date with Syracuse (2-0).

“Just waking up, going to school, knowing that I’ve got to do stuff that I don’t want to do every day — it turned me into a man now and made me realize the big picture, and it’s not all about football.”

But in the moments when it is all about football, Notre Dame’s leading rusher through three games, both in total yards (119) and average per carry (5.4), is as raw, unedited and brash off the field and he appears to be on it.

“I’ve got big dreams,” said the 5-10, 205-pound Delray Beach, Fla., product and one of only two five-star running back prospects among the 55 so designated in the Rivals.com era (2002-14) to end up at Notre Dame (James Aldridge was the other).

And he isn’t content with those thoughts staying in the dream stage much longer.

“I don’t just want to be a third-string running back ever,” said one piece of ND’s three-man running back rotation, along with fellow sophomore Tarean Folston and senior Cam McDaniel.

“I’m just going to keep making plays and see what the coaches do from there. If you make plays, they have no choice but to move you up from there.”

Bryant makes plays in the passing game too, (17 yards per catch), and as a punt returner when cornerback Cody Riggs needs a break (10.3), and even filling in on kickoffs Saturday in a 30-14 victory over Purdue after Amir Carlisle went down with a knee injury (29.0 yards).

“It’s just something that comes natural with the ball in my hands,” he said. “With the ball in my hands, I’m just going to make a play. I’m just going to say that all the time.”

And he does.

There is a humble side to Bryant, though. When he showed up in the summer of 2013, he expected ND’s deep stable of running backs to get out of his way, if not genuflect.

The unexpected competition from the other backs, the overwhelm from the playbook, the harder-than-expected adjustment to the climate and the lifestyle had him reeling before a torn meniscus in his right knee turned his freshman season into a medical redshirt year and a social media rumor mill, three carries and 14 yards into it.

Not once, he said, did the thought of transferring cross his mind, even though it seemed like it was on everybody else’s. The hardest part was the trips home, when even people who knew his potential well hinted that maybe he might turn out to be a bust.

All of which fueled a transformative offseason and reinstated his confidence.

“I’m not cocky,” he insisted.

But he does play with a flair seemingly every down, like putting Sriracha sauce on everything, including, say, ice cream.

Even his mistakes have a spectacular feel to them. Late in the third quarter of ND’s 48-17 season-opening victory over Rice on Aug. 30, ND quarterback Everett Golson looked to hand off to Bryant to the QB’s left.

But Bryant went right on the third-and-3 play from the Rice 4-yard line. After hesitating for a moment, Golson just took off and wiggled into the end zone for his third rushing TD of the day.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly declined to say who broke the play.

“Oh, I messed it up,” Bryant said. “I’m just going to come out and say it. That was me. One of my family members told me to say Everett messed it up, but I messed it up. It worked out for the better.”

As they often do with Golson and Bryant together, who sometimes look like they’re drawing up plays in the dirt. Which is Bryant’s comfort zone.

He refuses to make football complicated.

“It’s more like playing backyard football when you’re out there with him,” Bryant said of the chemistry with Golson.

It’s not that Bryant feels there’s no room for improvement in his game. Learning how to block well is a top priority, something he admits he didn’t do a lot of at American Heritage High School.

But he doesn’t want to squelch what he feels comes natural to him – instinctual, explosive, fearless football.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to get the ball again, so I’m going to try to get this punt and take it to the house.’ ”

That’s in lieu of a fair catch.

He admits he never film studied ND’s last fair catch avoider, former All-American Tom Zbikowski, but he used to watch and learn from the NFL’s elite running backs. Used to.

“I used to look up to Chris Johnson,” Bryant offered referring to the New York Jets running back, who was a Combine freak coming out of college and has an NFL rushing title on his résumé.

“But I’m trying to be better than Chris Johnson, so it’s like I don’t look up to him anymore. I’m just trying to be the best I can be.”

And when he needs inspiration, he thinks about his family, including dad Greg Bryant Sr., a former linebacker at Northern Illinois University, or he looks at all the stories on his arms, told through tattoos.

Among them is his dad’s favorite phrase, “Success Over Everything,” and his own favorite, “Hard Work.”

“I always look at ‘Hard Work’ when something’s going wrong,” he said. “It’s just something that keeps me going.”

But so does what’s in his backpack. And it’s a story he shares with visiting recruits, especially those, like Bryant, who come from faraway places.

“I tell them it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough transition. It’s going to be hard. The weather and everything is going to be tough. Coming from where you come from and just being around the people here at Notre Dame, it’ll just make you a better person and just make you a man, make you want to be successful.

“I told (them), I’m in class trying to raise my hand, just trying to get my teacher’s attention. That actually makes you want to be a better person and make you want to like succeed in stuff where you never thought you would.

“I just (said), ‘If you come here, you’ll want to be successful. It’ll be in you.’”

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @ehansenNDI

Notre Dame's Greg Bryant dives in for a touchdown during the season-opening rout of Rice. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)