It’s hard to imagine any player better personifying the term “expectations” than rising junior Greg Bryant. With arms as chiseled and meme worthy as any since the Brady Quinn days and a pedigree to match, the cliché’ of “it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’” seemed a fitting tag line for describing Bryant’ s ascent to greatness. The departures of both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood following the National Title Game in 2013 left a seeming void in the backfield. Yet, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn’t optimistic about the highly recruited pair of Bryant and Tarean Folston.
In many ways, Bryant’s career thus far has the same feel as the man he was in essence being asked to replace: Cierre Wood. The recruiting parallels are eerie. Both hail from football rich states. In Wood’s case, California. In Bryant’s case, Florida. Each was valued by 247 Sports composite ranking as the 6th best running back recruit nationally and a top 100 overall player. Each arrived on campus with plenty of buzz about how he would turn around the Irish’s fortunes in the backfield. Finding a feature back had proven to be an elusive task. After having a 1,000 yard rusher in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006, when Wood arrived in 2009, it had been several years of struggling to find that feature style back. Many viewed him as the answer.
Wood wouldn’t play at all during his freshman season which also happened to be Charlie Weis’ last. During Brian Kelly’s inaugural campaign, Wood found himself thrust into game action more regularly when incumbent starter Armando Allen was lost to injury. Wood finished the season with 600+ yards rushing, a yards per carry average over 5.0, and 3 touchdowns. It was Wood’s junior campaign when he settled into the role of star(ter). Wood did in fact become a 1,000 yard rusher nearly doubling both his carries and yards from sophomore to junior year. He again averaged 5.0+ yards per carry and scored 9 touchdowns. There was a place in Brian Kelly’s system for an explosive, dynamic runner, and Wood showed just what that could accomplish.
Fast forward to 2015, and Greg Bryant enters his junior season under similar circumstances. Bryant was limited to just 3 carries his freshman year. An early season injury led to Bryant’s sidelining, and everyone was forced to press pause on the presumed Bryant highlight reel. An explosive run during the 2014 Blue & Gold Game started the hype train anew. 2014 was in many ways a failure to launch for Bryant. Part of this was because classmate Tarean Folston took his strong end to the 2013 season and (excuse the pun) ran with it to become the featured back. While never outright acknowledged by Brian Kelly, it also seemed that some perceived deficiencies in pass blocking and perhaps some mental lapses also kept Bryant buried behind team heart throb Cam McDaniel.
Despite receiving only 54 rushing attempts, Bryant finished second on the team with 289 net rushing yards (1st – Folston, 889). Bryant’s 5.4 yards per carry was exceeded only by Malik Zaire (5.7) among back field members who received at least 20 carries. And, while maybe not ideal, Bryant’s 27 yard rush in the USC game was the Irish’s longest rush by any running back in 2014.
As Bryant enters 2015, his story remains one of untapped potential, but with Cam McDaniel’s departure, the time is ripe for Bryant’s full impact to be felt. 57 rushing attempts, like 103 snaps for a quarterback, can only tell you so much, but consider these interesting tidbits I found looking at every carry of Bryant’s career:
For his career, Greg Bryant is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. That’s better than either of Tarean Folston’s season averages as well as Cierre Wood’s averages for his sophomore or junior year. In fact, Bryant’s 5.4 ypc average last year was the 8th best average for any Notre Dame player who received at least 50 carries in a season since 2000.
While perhaps anecdotal proof of Kelly’s lack of faith in Bryant’s pass protection, Bryant has received just 3 third down carries in his career thus far. However, in each of his three third down carries, Bryant rushed for the requisite yardage to get a first down* (Only 2 of the 3 led to a first down as one play involved a 15 yard sideline interference penalty which moved the chains backwards). There is an advanced metric some analysts use called play efficiency. Loosely, it looks at each individual play and decides whether the play was “successful” (efficient) or not based on its progress towards achieving a first down.
I looked at each of Bryant’s carries and assessed it as efficient or not based on the following criteria: (1) A first down play was efficient if it gained at least 40% of the necessary yards required to get a first down (at least 4 yards under normal circumstances). (2) A second down was efficient if it gained at least 50% of the remaining yards necessary to achieve a first down (2nd and 5…a rush of at least 2.5 yards would be deemed “efficient”). (3) All third or fourth down plays must gain 100% of the yards remaining to be deemed efficient.
Looking at all of Bryant’s carries, 68% of attempts by Bryant have been efficient. His efficiency by down is:
1st Down: 64%
2nd Down: 73%
3rd Down: 100%
Interestingly, despite at times being accused of dancing too much in the backfield, Bryant has just 6 carries which resulted in negative yards. Of those 6, only 3 have been for more than a loss of one, and only one has resulted in a loss of greater than 2 yards.
It’s difficult to set a baseline of success for Bryant’s junior year. All summer the questions about Mike Sanford’s impact will remain as well as the questions on Malik Zaire as a starter. If the team truly moves towards a power rushing attack with greater use of spread/speed option concepts, Bryant’s got all of the tools to be a superstar. Then again, that’s been true since his arrival. It seems only fair to expect Tarean Folston to receive at the very least close to a 50/50 split of playing time unless the dynamic changes.
While I’d love to continue the parallels to Cierre Wood and state I expect Bryant to follow suit and become the next 1,000 yard Notre Dame rusher, I’m going to say we’ll see 2011-esqe stat lines but slightly differently. I see Folston as the guy likely to see an uptick in rushing yards to the 1,100 yard range with a 5.1 ypc. Bryant might end up with a stat line more like Jonas Gray’s 2011: 800-900 yards and a yards per carry exceeding 6.
From what we’ve seen from Bryant, it would be unfair to pencil him in to suddenly be a 20-25 carry per game work horse. After all, we’ve yet to see that out of him, and with Folston and Zaire in the back field, thinking any of those three will consistently get that many carries is unlikely. That’s okay.
Where Bryant’s value can shine through is as the homerun threat similar to what Wood became his junior and senior years. After having no rushes of even 40 yards his sophomore season, Wood had rushes in excess of 50 yards in each of his junior and senior seasons. That’s what Bryant is capable of. An efficient game breaker. And that’s my expectation for Bryant in 2015: He’ll rush for at least 800 yards, score at least 7 touchdowns, and have at least 1 touchdown of 60+ yards. Yeah, I could live with that.
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