By JOEL COLEMAN
No one had higher expectations for Brandon Bryant coming into the 2016 football season than himself. On the heels of a standout freshman season, Mississippi State’s sophomore safety even went so far as to switch his jersey number from No. 20 to No. 1 last spring to signify that he intended to be the No. 1 player on the field.
What Bryant learned in the months to follow were lessons he said will impact him for the rest of his football career.
“It was a tough year and it was really frustrating because I knew what kind of player I was and I know what kind of player I can be and the plays I can make,” Bryant said. “I was trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations and not living up to mine. I wasn’t just doing what I do and remembering what football is about. I made football a job for me.”
No one can blame Bryant for expecting great things out of himself. He’s arguably the most athletic Bulldog on the team. He’s been clocked at a team-best 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Last year, in his debut season with MSU, he made an immediate impact when he played in all 13 games, started the final eight contests and recorded more tackles than any other freshman defensive back in the Southeastern Conference. He also led MSU in interceptions with his three picks, a total more than any other SEC freshman.
Bryant’s numbers dipped this season. Across the board, he had fewer tackles, pass break-ups and interceptions than he did in 2015.
“For me, not knowing why I wasn’t making those plays was frustrating for me,” Bryant said.
Throughout this year, Bryant’s mettle was tested. He was down on himself. Football just wasn’t as fun as it used to be.
“It’s easy to get down for anybody as a human being when you’re not performing at the level that you want to,” MSU safeties coach Maurice Linguist said. “Frustration can come in and you can get down a little bit, but the good thing about football is that it teaches you how to persevere and shake it off and move on to the next thing. That’s kind of what (Bryant) did.”
As the year wore on and the days got tougher, Bryant finally had an epiphany – it was time to loosen up a bit. It was time to shake off the burden of his preseason expectations.
“I made it my business and my priority to go out and make every single play, but football isn’t really about that,” Bryant said. “Football is about going out there, having fun, doing what you can do and playing for the people that you love and giving God the glory because he blessed you with the talent.”
Bryant’s new mindset reaped dividends. In the season finale at Ole Miss, Bryant was putting together one of his best games of the season. He had five tackles, including one tackle for loss against the Rebels, before a concussion sidelined him for the second half.
“I was kind of mad I got hurt because I knew I was going to have a good game,” Bryant said. “It was just me finding my spark again. It was just about establishing myself as a playmaker and knowing what I can do and knowing my abilities.”
While Bryant’s potential big day in Oxford got cut short, Linguist was ecstatic to see Bryant finally shake off the doldrums that plagued him for much of the season.
“I’m proud of him,” Linguist said of Bryant. “You have to remember that these kids are young and Brandon is a sophomore. He’s going in the right direction. He had some bad moments in the middle of the year and I’m just proud of him persevering and getting through it. He’s playing at a good level right now. He’s got a bright future ahead of himself.
“Brandon is a great kid. He brings great energy every single day. He’s a good football player and he’s going to end up, before his time is done at Mississippi State, being a really good football player.”
When Bryant’s time as a Bulldog is up, no one will look back on his 2016 season with high regard. The numbers could have been better. Perhaps a few more plays should have been made.
However Bryant believes, as he strives for a career in the National Football League, that this past year might go down as the most important season he’s ever had.
“I think this year was more of a learning year for me,” Bryant said. “I think I needed this year actually. I think this helped me a whole lot because now I know I can never let off the gas. I’ve got to keep going and keep fighting through everything. I learned a lot this year about adversity. I think I learned a lot about a lot of things, so next year, I’m coming harder than ever.”
Before next season even gets here though, Bryant has one last chance to make a statement when MSU faces Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Monday. It’s an opportunity Bryant is eagerly anticipating.
“I’m ready to go out there on that field one last time this year and show the world Brandon Bryant is still Brandon Bryant,” Bryant said. “At the end of the day though, it’s not about proving anything to the world or to the fans. It’s about proving to myself what I can be and who I can be on the field.”