Harrison Bryant's journey from zero-star high school recruit to Browns rookie tight end

Harrison Bryant was not supposed to be a tight end.

Bryant was a near-flawless player for J.T. Wall's football program at John Milledge Academy in small-town Milledgeville, Georgia. Wall, a former Georgia Bulldogs running back who has coached JMA since 2009, called Bryant a "coach's dream." He loved his athleticism and 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame. He played Bryant nearly every snap.

"We could put him anywhere," Wall said, "and he could shine."

But he wasn't yet Harrison Bryant, the tight end. He was Harrison Bryant, the impenetrable offensive tackle. He made 16 pancakes his junior season. On defense, he was Harrison Bryant, the defensive end wrecking ball. That same season, he made 54 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

Players like Bryant didn't come often for Wall. Not in a town with 17,000 residents. With Bryant, Wall was blessed. He never questioned a coach's decision and was always at his best when the sizzling Georgia sun soaked the JMA practice fields during one of Wall's signature summer workouts of flipping tires, pushing sleds and running dozens of 110-yard sprints.

"He was (MVP) for a lot of our games," Wall said. "He wasn't real vocal, but when he needed to be, he was. The kids really responded to him. You knew what to expect from him every Friday night when he stepped on the field. He never disappointed."

Bryant was a dominant two-way player.

He was also a zero-star recruit.

He didn't play against a hotbed of future Division I college talent, and his big size wasn't particularly because of muscle. Only a few FCS schools were interested in him.

Then, he had a performance that changed everything.

During his junior season, Bryant caught two tackle-eligible passes for touchdowns in a JMA playoff game. He looked like a natural receiver. With his massive size, Bryant could dominate as a tight end if his coach would make the move.

At first, Wall was hesitant to move Bryant. He didn't want to skew his career trajectory along the line. Bryant hadn't yet made a college commitment, but he was bound to play offensive tackle or defensive end at the next level.

"It's kind of hard for me to take the best tackle in our league and put him at tight end," Wall told Bryant.

Wall knew Bryant would never beg for a change, but he knew Bryant was itching for a bigger shot at tight end. So were his other coaches who saw Bryant's unlimited potential.

"Harrison's a good soldier," Wall said. "He's not going to ruffle any feathers, but that idea got thrown around, and we looked at it."

Wall made the change. It might be the best coaching move Wall will ever make.

With Bryant at tight end, Wall's job was easy. Throw the ball to Bryant, no matter what. The coverage didn't matter. Bryant was that good.

"It got to a point," Wall said, "where if they doubled him, we'd throw to him anyway.".

Harrison Bryant, the tight end, had arrived. Five years since the position change, Bryant is now a rookie tight end in the NFL. He was the second player in JMA history to reach the NFL — the other was Wall in 2003. Last season, he became the first non-Power 5 player to win the John Mackey Award, given to the best tight end in college football, and first tight end to break 1,000 receiving yards since 2013.

Last April, the Browns added Bryant to their tight end room. He was their fourth-round pick of the 2020 draft.

Wall never saw that level of success coming — who can predict a small-town tight end from South Georgia will ever do that?

Now that Bryant did it in college, Wall is expecting Bryant to be just as successful in the NFL.

"He was a mismatch nightmare," Wall said. "And he will be in the NFL, too."

The Browns have selected Harrison Bryant in the 2020 NFL Draft.

***

Three weeks before National Signing Day his senior year, Bryant was ready to play defensive end at Samford, an FCS program in Birmingham, Alabama.

Bryant's only path to college football was through the FCS, and he still wasn't supposed to be a tight end. His senior year on offense included 39 receptions and 10 touchdowns. On defense, he made a staggering 100 tackles and 11 sacks. The tight end switch was fun, but it was over after high school. Next stop: Birmingham.

Not so fast.

Travis Trickett, then the offensive coordinator at Samford, was heading to Florida Atlantic to be the next offensive coordinator. He knew Bryant was joining Samford to play defensive end, but he kept an eye on his senior year tape.

And it was incredible.

"They started splitting him out wide, and he'd go up and Moss people," Trickett said, referring to the legendary receiving range of Hall of Famer Randy Moss.

When Trickett arrived at FAU, the Owls had two spots left on their roster. They needed one more running back and a tight end to bolster a relatively inexperienced position group. The first spot went to Devin Singletary, now the Buffalo Bills' starting running back. 

Trickett and FAU's other offensive coaches had to choose between Bryant and about six other tight ends, all of whom were either three- or four-star recruits. But when they saw the film from zero-star Bryant, the decision was easy. They extended him the offer.

Bryant changed his commitment one week before signing day. Next stop: Boca Raton, Florida.

"When you saw his film, you saw some things he did that you can't coach," Trickett said. "That's what you look for."

The Owls gave Bryant, who was bumped to a two-star recruit after switching commitments, his only FBS offer. For the next four years, the program reaped the benefits of his incredible athleticism and soft hands. Even though Bryant only had been a tight end for one year, he had no reason to take a redshirt his freshman season and caught six passes for 63 yards as a backup to Tyler Cameron, who later became a TV star on The Bachelorette.

In practice, Bryant could compete against anyone. FAU quarterbacks always mentioned his name in summer camp when Trickett — who, by NCAA policy, couldn't be present to watch — asked the group which freshmen stood out.

"That Harrison kid?" one quarterback told Trickett. "He's a baller."

Bryant showed no fear. On countless plays, he'd make a catch in the middle of the field and immediately absorb a bone-shattering hit from a defensive player. He never showed pain. He'd get back up, toss the ball to a team assistant and go back to the huddle.

"Everyone was like, 'This kid's tougher than crap,'" Trickett said. "He was a fish out of water. He was a South Georgia kid coming to South Florida and just coming in there and winning everyone over by how he's playing and playing tough."

When Trickett saw Bryant play in person, he knew he could make it to the NFL, but he was only his coach for one year. He became the offensive coordinator at Georgia State a season later and is now a tight ends and inside receivers coach at West Virginia. 

His brother Clint, however, was hired as a tight ends coach in 2017 under new Owls head coach Lane Kiffin and updated Travis on the team's progress. In his final three years at FAU, Bryant caught 16 touchdowns, accumulated over 2,000 receiving yards and became one of the best players to ever play for the program.

Travis Trickett was never surprised when his brother told him about Bryant's success.

"When I saw Harrison play as a freshman, I thought, 'Oh, that kid can play on Sundays,' Travis Trickett said. "As I talked with Clint, he would be like, 'Oh yeah, this kid's the best player on the team.'"

***

Bryant received a tap on the shoulder in the middle of his final regular season game at FAU Stadium with a message from one of the team's recruiting coordinators. He was letting Bryant know that he just became the first college tight end to break 1,000 receiving yards since 2013.

"All right, that's cool. Appreciate it," Bryant calmly said as teammates shouted around him for the achievement. 

He didn't remember which staffer told him the news because, frankly, it felt secondary. The Owls were about to win their second conference championship in the last three seasons. Bryant felt more joy about that.

He felt a similar way when he learned he was winning the John Mackey Award. He met some of the other top players in college football last season when he attended the College Football Awards Show, but he wasn't there to gloat about his past.

To Bryant, college achievements don't mean much now. Sure, he looked cool when he had the bronze trophy of John Mackey on a shelf behind him in the video meetings of the Browns' virtual offseason, but what does that mean now?

"I'm in the NFL now, so it doesn't really matter," Bryant said. "It was just another thing that I had my sights set on that I wanted to win. What you did in high school or college now doesn't matter. It's on to a clean slate."

Bryant was a bargain for the Browns. Fourth-round selections aren't normally expected to carry a heavy role with an NFL team in their rookie season. Bryant, however, could make a quick ascension up the depth chart. He has the ideal body structure for the position, and if he can improve his blocking abilities to the same level as his catching talents, he could become a starting-caliber player sooner rather than later.

The Browns are embracing tight ends in their new offensive schemes from coach Kevin Stefanski. The position wasn't a major need for Cleveland in the draft, but when Bryant was still available, the Browns took their bite.

"It got to the point where we were staring at the board, and you couldn't ignore the fact that he was still up there," said Glenn Cook, who was the Browns' assistant scouting director during the draft and is now the Vice President of Player Personnel. "His pass-catching ability is probably what stands out the most. His work ethic is great."

In his five-year career as a tight end, Bryant has been overlooked at each level of the game.

One season of being a stellar tight end at JMA wasn't enough to entice 129 other FBS schools. 

Four seasons of an accolade-filled career at FAU wasn't enough to entice 31 other NFL teams to take Bryant before the 115th pick.

Next stop: Cleveland.

He won't be overlooked there.

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