The words “if” and “doubt” aren’t in Tre Bryant’s vocabulary.
There was never a question for him if he would come back and be able to contribute to Nebraska’s running back room. There was never a doubt he would be the same player as the guy who rumbled for 192 yards in the season-opener last season.
He went down for good on Sept. 9 of last year, after 102 yards through three quarters against Oregon. He remembers the date well. He had surgery on his right knee in mid-October. When he met with the media on Wednesday — his first such availability in some time — he wasn’t interested in sharing too many details about what happened and when; just know Bryant wanted to ball and he was determined to not let that be taken from him.
“I’ve never been a guy to trip off of reps or playing time, I just like to play football, so it was just in that situation I wasn’t able to play football so that’s what was pushing it,” he said. “[The coaching staff] wanted me to shut it down but that was actually more on me seeing if I could actually go, just that competitive nature.”
Bryant categorized last fall camp as being in “survival mode” before the season even started.
“It was just kind of like let’s see how long we can ride this thing out so when I went down it wasn’t necessarily a shock,” he said.
But he’s not in survival mode anymore. Now he's "full go." In the summertime, right on schedule, he went back to work. When he saw himself stride for stride with the other backs, making the same cuts, he knew things were back on track. He says he leaned on friends, family and the Husker training staff. Husker coaches have him operating by a new motto: smarter, not harder.
“We’re just being smart with his reps and building him up, giving him a day off every once in a while,” running backs coach Ryan Held said. “For him, it’s a matter of getting a lot of mental and then building his stamina back up. We just don’t want to put him in a position where he takes a step back.”
Held, being the baseball guy he is, calls it Bryant’s pitch count. In practice, Bryant is getting the same three or four reps as everyone else — one of the benefits of having so many mouths to feed in the room; Bryant likely won’t touch the 31 carries he had in his only game last year. But Held is asking after every single one, “You good?”
“I appreciate Coach Held so much,” Bryant said. “Sometimes last year somebody would ask me if I’m good, and being a competitor I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ even though you know it’s hurting.”
He’s seen the other side of it now, so he’s not pushing when his body tells him to scale it back. Bryant says having been through a lost season and knowing that’s what awaits him if he continues to push past his limits is more comfortable. Continue to train smarter and he can play for longer.
“It’s kind of like being a kid in the candy shop again, going out there having fun,” he said. “I don’t have no personal goals because I know what it’s like to be down and not be able to play so it’s just having the best of both worlds, being down, coming back so I’m just having fun with it.”
When the season begins, Bryant will be contending with junior college transfer Greg Bell, freshmen Maurice Washington and Miles Jones, seniors Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon, sophomore Jaylin Bradley and maybe even walk-on Wyatt Mazour if Wednesday’s open practice was any indication. That’s a lot of runners for a finite number of carries. Bryant says he likes the overstocked stable.
“It just makes everybody better and we don’t even look at it as competition. We just really look at it as everybody getting better," he said. "If you go out there and do two or three plays at 100 percent, you can get out and get your breather and somebody else is going to do the exact same thing.”
Held didn’t watch much of last season, but he watched Bryant’s tape against Arkansas State. In that one game against a defense that ended the season 18th in stuff rate and 28th in defensive rushing success rate, Bryant ripped off 6.2 yards a carry.
Fifty-one total carries obviously isn’t a great sample size to work with but on those carries, he averaged 5.9 yards a pop, which would have been eighth-best in the Big Ten. Among the 41 players in the conference to have at least 50 carries last season, though, only two of them had a better opportunity rate (picking up 5 yards when 5 yards are made available) than Bryant’s 49.0 percent.
He’s not just another back to add depth, he’s a starting-caliber runner when healthy.
“He looks good, he’s making all the cuts,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said. “You can tell he’s been in the playbook over the summer and even in the spring and he knows what to do and he’s worked his tail off to get back on that field.”
Held has similar praise.
“He has the ability to hit it downhill and even in camp when he runs it downhill the pile goes backwards towards the touchdown,” Held said. “He can get low, he’s very powerful, he’s a good kid and he’s smart. He’s kept up with the mental piece of it so I’m excited about what he can do.
“I always felt like he was going to work hard to put himself in a position to do it but now that I see what he can do when he’s out there, I really like Tre Bryant. Tre Bryant’s a good player.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.