Jun 2, 2014, 6:28 PM EDT
Thousands of words have already been spent on Greg Bryant‘s 2014 season and the calendar just hit June. Notre Dame’s sophomore running back, healthy after a knee injury and a steep learning curve kept him off the field last season, will now go to work trying to live up to the expectations.
When it comes to Notre Dame fans, that’s no easy task. And after Bryant’s big spring game and a running back depth chart that’s been cut down to three, there’s no player with more on his shoulders than the former blue-chip recruit from Florida.
Let’s take a closer look at Greg Bryant.
Sophomore, No. 1
Not too many players have come to Notre Dame as highly touted as Bryant, who was one of the top 20 players in the country, according to Rivals.com. A five-star recruit that jumped from Oklahoma to Notre Dame later in the recruiting process, Bryant was one of the key gains that came from 2012′s undefeated regular season.
Bryant was judged the third-best running back in the country by Rivals, though that Top 5 certainly hasn’t shook out the way you’d expect. At No. 5, Derrick Henry flashed the power and speed you expected in limited touches at Alabama, averaging over 10 yards a carry. At No. 4, Ty Isaac is looking for a new school, transferring from USC. Thomas Tyner had an impressive freshman season at Oregon, running for 711 yards and nine touchdowns on 6.2 yards per carry. But the top back in the country, Michigan’s Derrick Green looked slow and overweight as a freshman, breaking 50 yards in a game only once while averaging an anemic 3.3 yards per carry.
Bryant isn’t the biggest or fastest back, but pound-for-pound he looks the part of a workhorse, and the chiseled runner looked like an elite back after dominating Florida high school football, looking like an NFL back as a high schooler. One of three truly elite prospects in the Irish 2013 recruiting class, Notre Dame will hopefully be carried by Bryant, Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield in 2014.
Freshman Season (2013): Appeared in three games before missing the rest of the season with an injury.
The sky is seemingly the limit for Bryant, who worked through a frustrating, injury-plagued freshman campaign to return valiantly for spring ball. As Irish fans often do, rumors of Bryant’s unhappiness and whispers of a transfer started to spread as the season wore on and Bryant wasn’t a part of it. But spring gave the young running back a new start, and he eagerly took advantage of that.
With Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone vacating the running back spot, it is now three backs at a position that had as many as six contenders exiting last season. But the two backs returning, senior Cam McDaniel and fellow sophomore Tarean Folston, both will limit the opportunities Bryant will get this season. And in Folston, the Irish might have a back that’s better for the Irish offense, even if Bryant won the star-rating exiting high school.
Mentioning Folston shouldn’t diminish the player the Irish have in Bryant. He’s the power running that Notre Dame hasn’t had under Brian Kelly, only capable of breaking a big run as well. Bryant also has the ability to be a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, smooth in the open field or as a receiver. Paired with Folston or running alone, Bryant (and Folston) both have the highest ceiling of any running back that Kelly has coached at Notre Dame.
Ultimately, Bryant’s biggest limitation — other than the meniscus injury that ended his season — was understanding the demands of running back at the collegiate level. After dominating play physically with raw talent, Bryant’s knowledge-base of the game was lacking last season, leading to some difficulties understanding the playbook, not easy when Tommy Rees is checking plays at the line of scrimmage.
Finding touches will be the most interesting part of 2014. With Brian Kelly back calling the plays, we’ll see exactly how often the head coach wants to get Bryant involved. McDaniel has earned his minutes playing for Kelly, and we’ve seen the Irish head coach feed footballs to the running back he trusts most.
If Bryant can earn his way to that status, then he’s poised to have a monster year, as he’s the best power-running short-yardage back on the roster. But a modest goal of 10 touches a game should be where the bar is set, assuming that Folston deserves just as many.
One place for Bryant to help the Irish is in the short passing game and on special teams. He’s been given the first shot at the punt return job, a spot where for years the Irish were happy just fair catching the football. Bryant should also have a chance to replace George Atkinson as kick returner, though his top-end speed isn’t where Atkinson’s was.
As a pass catcher, Bryant could be an electric option. Kelly was quick to kill comparisons to Theo Riddick, who Kelly believes to be a better receiver, but Bryant is a bigger, stronger and faster version of Riddick.
Ultimately, Bryant is a player with a ton to prove. Can a year in the program shed the burden of great expectations? If the Irish offense is going to be as explosive as many expect, the answer needs to be yes.