By JOEL COLEMAN
When the 2015 football season started, Brandon Bryant was supposed to provide depth at the safety position for Mississippi State. After unfortunate circumstances, the redshirt freshman has gone from a reserve to one of MSU’s premier defensive playmakers.
Following senior safety Kendrick Market’s season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear at Texas A&M on Oct. 3, Bryant has stepped in as MSU’s starting strong safety the last two weeks. In that time frame, Bryant has been right in the middle of some of Mississippi State’s biggest moments, rewarding the faith placed in him by Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and staff.
“They know that I’ve got confidence now, more than I usually have,” Bryant said. “They put me in the right spots at the right times, trusting me to go on blitz and to read the quarterback’s eyes in deep coverages. That’s how you make plays right there, just getting put out there to make them.”
After forcing a fumble that led to a touchdown in Mississippi State’s win over Troy on Oct. 10, Bryant again made his presence felt in Saturday’s 45-20 victory over Louisiana Tech.
Bryant ended the game with six total tackles, but his two biggest contributions led to 14 Mississippi State points. Late in the first half, MSU forced Louisiana Tech to punt from deep in its own territory. Mississippi State’s Donald Gray got to LA Tech punter Gerald Shouse and blocked the kick, while Bryant recovered the ball just two yards away from the end zone.
One Dak Prescott run later and Mississippi State had its first lead of the day.
“Coach Mullen told us in Thursday’s practice that we were going to try to block the first punt,” Bryant said. “We went out there and we executed at a high level and did what he told us.
“It was huge. Special teams is one of the most important parts of the game and it shifted momentum.”
Bryant’s biggest moment was yet to come. With Mississippi State leading 38-20 midway through the fourth quarter, Bryant intercepted a pass from Louisiana Tech quarterback Jeff Driskel. Bryant returned the pick 73 yards for a touchdown, essentially putting the game on ice for MSU.
It was sweet revenge for Bryant. Earlier in the game, Driskel had put LA Tech up 7-0 by dropping a touchdown pass in just before Bryant could arrive to defend the throw. This time, Bryant didn’t miss the opportunity to make a big play.
“He just competed,” Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said of Bryant. “This was a game where we were going to have to make some plays and I think the challenge for a young guy is, they can flash and make a good play, but when a bad play happens can you respond to that. So the interception (Bryant) made showed, after getting knocked back a little giving up a touchdown, he responded and came back and made a play that will give him a lot of confidence going forward.”
Bryant said he knew immediately that he was going to go the distance with his interception.
“As soon as I caught it,” Bryant said. “I don’t run a 4.2 (40-yard dash) for nothing.”
Bryant’s big plays haven’t gone unnoticed by the man who formerly filled Bryant’s current role. During the game on Saturday, Market took to Twitter to congratulate Bryant.
“Lil bro finally got him one,” Market tweeted after Bryant’s pick-6. “A lot more coming soon.”
Market’s support is nothing new to Bryant. While he’ll likely never get on the field for MSU again, Market has been a constant presence in the development of Bryant and the rest of MSU’s young safeties including Jamal Peters and Mark McLaurin.
“He sits there at practice and watches us,” Bryant said of Market. “He makes sure we stay on one accord with each other and we’re all basically just playing for him because he had his whole senior year in front of him and he lost that so we have to go make up for that.”
It’s safe to say that Bryant is making his mentor proud. With Bryant and his young teammates filling Market’s void, Mullen is eager to see the impact his safety group can have as Mississippi State readies for five straight Southeastern Conference games to close out the regular season.
“It’s huge because of the loss we had with Kendrick,” Mullen said. “These young guys coming in are so athletic. It’s great to see them start to take those steps.
“What you lose in (Market’s) leadership, you’re turning to some great players with great futures and it’s great to see them grow up in a hurry because over the next five games, we’re going to really need them to step up and make plays for us.”