Bryant is back, better than ever after knee injury
LINCOLN — Ryan Held asks Tre Bryant the same question every day. Are you good to go?
For the first time in nearly a year, the Nebraska running back is nodding to his position coach — and meaning it.
The Huskers’ new staff overhauled the backfield in the offseason, adding impact freshmen like Maurice Washington and Miles Jones along with Greg Bell from the junior college ranks. Three other backs who combined for 241 carries a year ago return, too.
But don’t forget about Bryant, who remained Nebraska’s leading rusher for half of last season even after a knee injury limited him to just seven quarters of football. He’s finally healthy, to the point that coaches openly talk about how — not if — the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Bryant fits into their plans.
“I think he can do everything that the job entails,” Held said. “He can run, he can be a short-yardage back, he can run routes. He can bring the speed element, be able to go all the way. So he is a complete back, but I just have to see him continuously be able to get his sea legs underneath him to where he can go out and function in a game and take a hit.”
The last time Bryant absorbed a blow in a real contest was Sept. 9 at Oregon. One week after carrying 31 times for 192 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas State, he had rolled up 107 more yards and a score on 20 attempts before going down early in the fourth period.
The St. Louis native has been behind the scenes ever since. Then-coach Mike Riley described Bryant’s right knee as “older than his age” after that game and later called it a “mystery” that rest hadn’t improved the situation.
Bryant eventually had a procedure in mid-October and quietly began rehabbing the knee. In May, he tweeted videos of himself sprinting and making cuts with a single-word description of “progress.” He felt 100 percent sometime during the summer, which was always the plan. He credits NU’s medical staff for his return, specifically mentioning head football trainer Mark Mayer and assistant trainer Drew Hamblin.
“I never had the mindset of, ‘Oh, I may not be back,’” Bryant said. “But the toughest part was just the first couple days, first couple weeks of the surgery, just the range of motion and all that. Just getting that back.”
Truth be told, Bryant said, the knee began bothering him during last year’s training camp and he wanted to see how long he could ride it out. It was “survival mode,” a short-sighted way to play the game he loves and quiet all the committee talk among himself and Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon.
So when coaches asked him how he was feeling back then? He wasn’t exactly forthcoming about the injury. But Bryant insists that he’s learned his lesson since then. Work smarter instead of harder. Quality reps over a high volume of them. No more survival mode.
“It’s kind of like being a kid in a candy shop again, just going out there and having fun,” Bryant 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 and coming back. So now I’m just having fun with it.”
Bryant submitted medical-hardship paperwork to the Big Ten Conference last month that should allow him to retain sophomore status, though it’s not yet official. He practices without a knee brace of any kind (“Oh, no, I don’t like that,” the back said. “You’re telling defenses to hit it.”) and has popped pads without issue in fall workouts.
Held said coaches will keep a pitch count of sorts on Bryant, who turns 21 when Nebraska plays Wisconsin on Oct. 6. He might go a few days and then take one off.
“We’re not gonna overwear him out to where we can go downhill,” Held said. “So when he tells me, ‘Hey, I’m a little sore,’ then he’s over and we move on. His recovery has to be great. He’s got to get in the cold plunge, the ice deal, and everything with the trainers.”
But like an opening on a halfback dive, the path ahead is in sight for Bryant and Nebraska. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters called Bryant’s return “an added bonus to our offense.” The back himself still can’t believe his luck with his new inherited scheme, which often puts him in space against a single defender.
All that’s left is to go out and prove he’s up to the task, like he started to do last season.
“If you make that guy miss, you may take it 60 or 70 yards instead of having to break five tackles to get to the next level,” Bryant said. “It’s a little more fun. It’s a little more space to breathe.”