Playmaker in Waiting

Greg Bryant ambled into the Isban Auditorium and took the first seat available, not bothering to remove the cumbersome book bag strapped to his back.

"I have a lot of studying to do," he offered to the media horde.

Bryant was referring to academic endeavors, but ample work remains in running backs coach Tony Alford's classroom as well. Bryant is the third player to rotate in what remains a three-player backfield rotation.

It's not a spot any member of the trio relishes.

"We've been doing a rotation since fall famp, Cam (McDaniel) first, Tarean (Folston) second; or Tarean first, Cam second, and I'm third," said Bryant. "That's how it's been. I guess that's how it's going to be, I guess.

"I don't want to be a third-string running back, ever," he added. "I'll just keep making plays and see what the coaches do from there. If you make plays, they have no choice but to play you."

To date, Bryant has made the most, albeit fewer than he, most Irish fans, and than the Notre Dame coaching staff envisioned through three games. He leads the team in rushing with 119 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Add to that a pair of receptions for 34 yards and Bryant has produced 6.37 yards-per-touch.

Both Folston (30 rushes, 2 receptions, 136 total yards) and McDaniel (22 carries, 3 receptions, 121 yards) have enjoyed more opportunities, however minimal, to date. Bryant leads the trio in plays that have gained 10 yards or more with six. (Folston has five, McDaniel 3.) He's added a trio of punt returns totaling 31 yards (10, 18, and 3 yards, respectively).

"I haven't thought about it that way," he said when asked if a three-runner rotation makes it difficult to become comfortable and establish a rhythm. "I just think that when I get in, I'm going to make a play. Usually I'm on the sidelines anticipating going in and I know when I get in, I'm going to make play, so I just let the coaches decide where to go from there.

"Basically that's how I look at it. Cam and Tarean get their chance, but when I get in, I'm definitely making a play. That's just how I feel.

"We all have different running styles. We all can come in for different situations and make plays."

Considering the limited opportunity (eight scrimmage touches, one KR), his most recent outing, a 30-14 Irish victory over Purdue, was likely his best. A jet sweep went for 16 yards. A zone-read hit for seven more. Two pass receptions both totaled 17 including one that moved the chains on third down. A 29-yard kickoff return was added in relief of injured starter Amir Carlisle.

The takeaway from his limited action against the Boilermakers was that Bryant is just scratching the surface. Running -- be it after a handoff, fielded punt or kick, or pass reception, just comes naturally.

"Everett (Golson) when stuff broke down, I just found an open space and he dumped the ball down to me," he said of the first two catches of his college career. "That worked out well on third down so I could pick up the easy yards.

"Me and Everett have a good chemistry back there. I guess we see eye-to-eye. It's more like you're playing backyard football when you're back there with him. He sees something, you (both) react to it, and he throws you the ball. It comes natural with me and Everett in the backfield, together. It's really easy to play with him."

Playmaker in the Making

Bryant spent the bulk of his freshman season as a bystander, earning limited reps in mop-up duty against Temple in the team's season opener, then running under a Kyle Brindza kickoff in mid-September against Michigan State. A procedure on his knee truncated his rookie season thereafter.

Time spent away from the game he's been playing since early childhood afforded personal growth.

"It made me realize the big picture. It's not all about football," he said. "It basically made me the person I am today. I wanted to come back, be humble and be a great football player."

Great has to wait. Consistency comes first, and Bryant is well-aware of what he needs to fine tune.

"I feel like I made improvements, being more patient, setting up blocks to go where I want to go," he said. "But sometimes that doesn't work, when stuff breaks down, you just have to be a ball player and make plays. It's just football.

"It's instinct. Sometimes you can wait on that block, but someone else could be coming behind you. I understand that you have to be patient, but if I see something, I'm going to hit it as well."

Instinct and developed, God-given talents have little to do with the most vexing element of his position in the modern game: blocking.

"I feel like I can get better at pass protection, become a complete running back," he said. "I can run the ball, I can catch the ball. (Blocking is) one thing I really want to work on. Separating from not just the running backs on my team, but from everybody in the country."

The challenge is both mental and physical. "Read my keys, get my hands inside, and be more physical," he said of his pass protection sets. "You can be really physical, but then a really good defender can swim off you, run around you. So you can't really react too quickly."

Run, catch, block, and of course, return. His 29-yard kickoff return last week in Indianapolis was the first of his career. So too were a trio of punt returns in the season opener against Rice. Head coach Brian Kelly has not put Bryant back to return a punt since, likely because of a decision Bryant made to eschew a fair catch inside the Irish 5-yard line. The harrowing return through multiple tackle attempts began at the 3-yard line, gained 10 yards, and was one block away from totaling 87 more for six points.

"It's just me being fearless and not caring who is in front of me," he said of an apparent refusal to offer a fair catch. "Sometimes it could hurt you, but sometimes a risk can be a big play."

I punted football also represents something Bryant can't pass up -- opportunity.

"I'm not going to lie. I don't know when I'm going to get the ball again so I might as well get this punt and try to take it to the house," he said. "With the fair catches, if I feel threatened, I'm going to make fair catch. but if I don't, I'm never going to fair catch."

Has he felt threatened yet?

"No."

"It's just something that's natural with the ball in my hands, I'm going to make a play, I'm going to say that all the time," he added, well-aware he'd used the phrase often during his time with the media gathered. "It's just natural playmaking ability, something I've been doing since I was five. I'm gong to continue to do that, without a doubt. That's another promise."

A night of scholastic study appeared on tap for Bryant following his 15 minutes of football-centric questions. Thereafter, a continuous battle for playing time with two worthy competitors appears on tap through season's end.

As a result, Bryant had no time for big picture contemplations, but after a brief pause, noted, "I have big dreams," he offered. "I'm not where I want to be yet."


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories