Notre Dame's Greg Bryant embraces his future

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – More than a month has passed since Greg Bryant produced an electrifying 61-yard punt return against Louisville, and not many days pass in which the Notre Dame redshirt freshman running back doesn’t watch it on film, doesn’t replay it in his mind.

The part that he wishes he could edit into that endless loop is changing the tail end of the play.

Bryant tried to dive into the end zone instead of continuing his sprint down the ND Stadium west sideline. The end result was Bryant being ruled out at the 3-yard line, and the result of that was Bryant being offered advice from the Irish coaching staff on how he should have finished the return.

“I was like, I was just trying to be pretty,” the refreshingly candid Bryant offered late last week. “I’m not gonna lie … I was too excited.”

It’s plays like that return — and the dazzling burst of speed and the ability to make defenders miss with sharp cuts and the power he displays when finishing runs — that have fifth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly still very excited about what the former five-star prospect can do in his offense.

“He’s got a bright future,” Kelly said on Saturday, “and a lot of football ahead of him.”

That next chapter unfolds Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn., when the Irish square off against LSU in the Music City Bowl. Since midseason, sophomore Tarean Folston has earned the lion’s share of the carries, with senior Cam McDaniel and Bryant filling in the gaps. Kelly offered that Bryant will contribute against LSU, but that Folston’s body of work has been more consistent.

Next year, however, expect it to be the Folston and Bryant show in terms of carries. McDaniel graduates, and the Irish right now have a commitment from high school senior Josh Adams, although adding another back in the 2015 class is a high priority between now and signing day.

“(Bryant will) be looked on to carry a lot of the load next year for us,” Kelly said.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Bryant enters the Music City Bowl as ND’s second-leading rusher, with 52 carries for 287 yards and three touchdowns. A high ankle sprain suffered against Florida State helped limit the Delray Beach, Fla., product to two carries over a five-game stretch, but Bryant saw extensive action in the 49-14 washout at USC with a seven-carry, 79-yard day that included a touchdown.

“I feel like I had an OK season. OK. Not spectacular. Just OK," Bryant said. "That’s all I can say. My first year of playing, redshirt freshman, it was OK. I can’t go (anywhere) but up from here. That’s how I feel.”

Bryant wasn’t afraid to offer his feelings about what it’s like for him to watch from the sidelines.

“I don’t like it. Yeah, I don’t like it. It’s just, I don’t like it,” Bryant said, his comments carrying no hidden agendas of complaints, rather a candid offering of how badly he wants to be on the field.

Bryant talked about taking steps to be a leader, and next year he and Folston will be the elder statesmen in the running back room.

“I’m getting older now and I’m not just sitting in the back and letting things happen. I’m trying to be a leader,” Bryant said. “It’s starting to be like high school again. It’s just playing football now.”

Something he and Folston are both very good at, and something that has helped create a bond between the two. In fact, whenever Bryant trots onto the field for a punt return, it’s Folston’s voice that is one of the loudest offering encouragement.

“We always clown, but when we’re in practice and game situations, we focus,” Folston, ND’s leading rusher this season with 816 yards, said. “Before every punt return I yell at him from the sideline, ‘Let’s get it. You’re going to do this. You’re going to take it back.’

“I guess you could say we’ve got a certain lingo, but we understand each other.”

Bryant’s take?

“We just ball. If he’s ballin’, he’s ballin’. If I’m ballin’, I’m ballin’,” Bryant said. “We don’t really talk about it much. We just understand each other.”

Bryant seems to have a better understanding of how to reach his vast potential. No longer is he pressing to impress every time he carries.

“It’s starting to come more easy to me,” Bryant said. “I’m not thinking, I’m just playing.”

Notre Dame's Greg Bryant returns a punt 61 yards during the Notre Dame-Louisville football game on Nov. 22. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)