Analysis: In crisis, Greg Bryant must heed own advice to reach potential
SOUTH BEND — Even before Greg Bryant’s impending four-game suspension kindled a reason to redefine him on Monday, the Notre Dame junior running back was already meandering toward becoming an afterthought.
The only tangible arguments arresting that notion are the five-star recruiting status that forms the lens through which his successes, shortcomings and potential are viewed, and his short history of attacking adversity with huge doses of resolve — and undeniable talent.
Otherwise, a third-stringer wouldn’t usually conjure national ripples — not even a Notre Dame third-teamer — or much momentum that his non-star status might eventually evolve.
Bryant’s suspension, confirmed by a Notre Dame source and first reported by 247sports and Irish Illustrated, knocks the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder out of games against Texas, Virginia, Georgia Tech and UMass — with the Cavaliers (18th) being the only top 50 run defense among them in 2014.
It also removes ND’s most experienced punt returner (8 for 94 yards, 11.8 average, while tag-teaming with departed cornerback Cody Riggs) from those games, though the Irish coaching staff did a lot of auditioning in the spring, including standout receiver Will Fuller, and has some freshman options to sort through.
A violation of team rules was the vague explanation for the suspension, provided for public consumption. Irish sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly was unavailable for comment or clarity.
The unexpected and steep ascent in the spring of senior hybrid offensive player C.J. Prosise suppresses Bryant’s absence on the relevance meter. What started as a safety net/experiment with ND’s starting slot receiver became a revelation.
“The guy that keeps jumping out at us is C.J. Prosise,” Kelly said in April of a player who carried 10 times last season, all from the slot position. “He's really rounding into a guy that you're going to fear. When you turn on the film, you're going to look at him and go, ‘He scares me.’ ”
Prosise, at 6-foot-1 and pushing 230 pounds, is particularly scary because he can finesse outside runs and scamper away from defensive backs, and also do Bryant-esque things, including pounding for tough yards between the tackles.
And catch the ball, and block and assimilate ND’s blitz-pickup packages — all less-than-consistent phases of Bryant’s game thus far.
Combine Prosise with Tarean Folston, a 5-10, 214-pound junior and last season’s leading rusher for the Irish, and a promising pair of freshmen in 6-0, 200 Dexter Williams and 6-2, 210 Josh Adams and the Irish still have quantity, quality and variety in their running back options.
The Irish had nine OTAs, limited training sessions with members of the coaching staff, spread throughout the month of June, so the coaches have got a least a strong first impression of what the newcomers can do.
Bryant’s own ceiling, despite a modest 303 career rushing yards (on 57 carries) and a knee injury that turned 2013 into a medical redshirt season, has never been murky. Only the path that could get him there has.
The redeeming threads that kept those around him believing he’ll still reach that someday start with Bryant’s commitment to what he first saw and still sees as a more difficult, but potentially more rewarding football/academic path.
It’s a thought process the Delray Beach, Fla., product openly shares with potential Irish recruits, especially those from his home state, such as freshman linebacker Te’von Coney.
“I tell them it’s not going to be easy,” Bryant said last fall before Coney came aboard. “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.”
Now Bryant must take his own advice, and not just internalize it, but make it apparent on the practice field, and on game days when he does return, and off the field with his decision-making.
A road date at Clemson on Oct. 3, featuring the nation’s reigning No. 1 overall defense and No. 5 team against the run in 2014, is his targeted re-entry date.
But Bryant, the source said, remains eligible for the team’s informal, coach-less July workouts as well as formal training camp practices that kick off in early August. That provides him the opportunity to make progress out of the spotlight.
And maybe that’s the backdrop Bryant needs to find his footing, not that he ever shrank from the expectations or resented them. But maybe he just needs to quietly reboot.
First-year running backs coach Autry Denson, ND’s career rushing leader and a fellow South Florida product, will try to help Bryant see the opportunity in the crisis.
Denson’s impact on Prosise, with zero carries as a running back in high school and who came to ND as a safety, has been immediate and seismic.
“He taught me the fundamentals and also how to be great,” Prosise said of Denson. “Who else would I really want coaching me up other than the best running back to ever play here?”
Bryant’s best chance to impact October and beyond is if he carries a similar open mind-set. He needs to show his biggest hiccup in an ND uniform was a matter of maturity and not character. He also needs to remind himself no one controls his destiny more than he does.
“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,” Bryant said last fall. “I’ve got big dreams.”
And despite Monday’s suspension, they all remain in play.
One of the more intriguing and provocative of a seemingly endless barrage of manufactured offseason lists is one concocted by Matt Brown of sportsonearth.com.
On his list of the top 25 quarterbacks in college football are five 2015 Notre Dame opposing QBs, including Nos. 1 and 2.
The order may surprise you, with Clemson sophomore Deshaun Watson landing in the top spot, followed by USC’s Cody Kessler. Ohio State’s triumvirate of Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller, whom the Irish would only face in a bowl or playoff scenario, share the No. 3 spot.
Other certain opposing signal-callers are Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas at 11, Navy’s Keenan Reynolds at 16 and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan at 19.
Two former Notre Dame QBs made the top 25 — Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel at No. 12 and Florida State’s Everett Golson at No. 25. The current Irish quarterback also found his way into the rankings, with Malik Zaire settling one spot ahead of Golson at No. 24.